Tuesday, November 22, 2011

An African Glow

“My life became an African life, my surroundings took on an African flavor, my spirit took on an African glow” Assata Shakur

The past few months my African spirit has been bright and grounded. It has been hugged and loved in the way that speaks straight to the heart. When it all comes together both internally and externally you cannot help but walk with a smile that says, “I am Africa”!!

I lean on the words of Assata Shakur as it speaks to my gaining clarity on who I am as a “non-resident” African. This Reflection is about sharing these spaces with all of you who although not present give fuel to my words and light the fire in my footsteps.

My first stop was the Howard University International conference, “Africa and People of African descent: Issues and Actions to (Re)- Envision the Future.”

I had been thinking a lot about how we use and why we use certain terminologies to identify ourselves and our community. In the summer, while presenting a paper an African American participant did not see themselves in the dialogue because I was using the term “Afrodescendent.” I also began to struggle on how many Afro-Latinos were using the term but not understanding or willing to lean more on the Afro part because I think they still are not fully clear of their Africanness.

I shared these thoughts with Brandi our Youth Coordinator. Her fire is motivating and her energy is contagious. Responding to her email was one of the best decisions I made this year.

We decide to send something in for the conference around this question of terminologies. Our title was, “What’s in a Name? Unpacking Black Terminologies of Identity.” I already had the panelist in mind that could really tackle this question without fear. Brandi was our youth/African American voice, Dr. Quito Swan a Prof. in the African Diaspora Studies at Howard University was our Caribbean voice, Chioma Naji our African voice and then my mentor Christopher Rodriguez, was the Afro-Latino voice.

We addressed such questions as, How do these terminologies condition the way we treat each other? (i.e. unifying by putting Africa at the center, or building barriers by emphasizing the differences in our identity) We highlighted our diverse experiences with the hope of “envisioning what an African descendent identity can represent in the global community”

I then decided I would also present an individual paper I had been working on for another conference. This took me deeper into my African Panama. My paper , “The Struggle for Equality, Visibility and Identity in Panama” highlighted the two major stages of development in Panama that are grounded in its African roots, and now adding a third stage that in knowing our history, created a movement for justice, acknowledgement and visibility.

I looked deeper into each stage and gathered stories from family members, friends, mentors, parents of friends, activist, to bring a real voice into the historical narrative. I was willing to learn, see and hear things that would continue to shatter the separation in the country, confront the glorification of a colonial mindset rooted in racism and celebrate the resistance of our people that was not only through action but a way of life that now moves with a Pan- African agenda.

The first stage, “Land-Tierra” is “rooted in the legacy of those brave Africans who refused to live an imposed life of servitude and created an alternative life for themselves in free New World African societies called, “Palenques.” Panama was the site of the first free black community on the mainland of the Americas. The descendants of the Cimarrones or Congos are present today and continue to practice their traditions.

I interviewed Marcia Rodriguez who I am excited to share, is now the Reina Congo. Marcia shared,” The Cimarrones showed us that to live well, it is necessary to have, “libertad y dignidad”. “We survived because we were always told that we needed to honor our ancestors. Their struggle could not be left in vein. If we lost our story, we lose ourselves.”

The Second stage, “Home” is rooted in the pride of the Caribbean community. In this stage I touch on Marcus Garvey’s work in Panama. I was moved by how many family members and friends were willing to share their story. I wanted to address the fact that our ancestors were denied citizenship at one point in this “Patria” we call home and although many celebrate the “priviledge” of the Canal Zone yet when you really look at it and I mean look at it, we were never fully accepted their either. As Mr. Terry said, “National identity is not simple as being born there but also about being a part of the people, the plan and the outcome. Where is the acceptance of the sweat and blood in this country?”

I learned by interviewing childhood friends that we survived the struggles in the desegregated schools because we were grounded in the real history of our families. As my friends Rey and Marcelo shared, we refused to be bullied and treated, “less than” we resisted their “entitlement” and moved as “one”

The third stage, “Root; Taking care of the Ground” is our time to speak of the complexity of our identity as people of African descent and the resistance that we move with today. I interviewed Eugenio Johnson, son of Mr. Eugene Johnson who was a Canal Zone police officer who spoke before Congress advocating for travel visas for the Afro-Caribbean community. Eugenio speaks of his father with great pride and now has a better understanding of what his father did for many.

In this stage I highlighted Mr. Richards who I will continue to write about because of the influence he continues to have on my development as a Pan-African. I learned more about his childhood, what he was like as a young man and what fed his journey to fight with others for “Dia de la Etnia Negra” in Panama. “Everything I read fed my enthusiasm and my energy that this had to happen.” He then switches to Spanish and says, “El rechazo de la sociedad hacia el Negro me da fuerza para seguir porque yo quiero enseñarle otro punto.”

I closed my paper with these words, “It is my hope that as Panamanians we embrace our deeply rooted history that allows us to look out to the Motherland while creating the visibility and the recognition in Panama that we so deserve. “

The conference was three days; I was inspired by all those present. On the second day, Quito invited me to speak to his students. I shared my journey in this work, more about Panama, our connections as people of African descent, my spiritual journey and Reggaeton.

I had shared with Quito that Reggae in Spanish started in Panama and broke it down that it started in Colon by a childhood neighbor called Nando Brim. Yes, I love telling that story! Anyway, I shared about current Reggaeton artist who still use this space to speak on the reality of the people. I highlighted Ricardo Weeks aka DJ BLACK who currently has a political position at home. We had the students listen to his song, “Su Madre” yes, familia, the clean version and then shared what he was saying. I had so much fun with the students. They asked wonderful questions. What was interesting was that most who came up to me after wanted to know more about my spiritual journey and how it could support their own search.

It was at the conference that I hung out with three brothers that I want you all to remember their names. Quito Swan, Mark Bolden and Jared Ball. Hanging out with these brothers makes your African spirit move in a perfect line. It is about the attitude, determination, knowledge, care and laughter. The only thing missing was our mutual friend Marcos Bellamy. These brothers are making some serious noise in each of their spaces. I am looking forward to collaborating with them in the future.

On this stop unconditional love was met and felt through the eyes of understanding, forgiveness and joy.

My second stop was the Black Caucus Leadership Conference. I shared this space with Marta Moreno Vega, Zakiya Carr –Johnson, Sheila Walker and Zulia Mena. In my few minutes I spoke of the visual representations of Latinas in this country and the lack of inclusion of the Afro descendent reality. I also spoke of the lack of understanding of the commonality with an African American experience. I spent more time sharing what I see working with the youth. How the not knowing, the not being able to ask, is creating the tensions in the schools and the internal struggles they face on a daily basis.

The third stop the African Union High Level Meeting. This was my in person meeting with Retired General Ishola Willliams of Nigeria who I have been speaking to and who facilitated my invitation to the meeting. The General’s spirit to unify our people is admirable and contagious.

The meeting was the biggest gathering of selected high caliber African Diasporan. It was organized by the African Union Diaspora Task Team. In his opening statement the Ambassador from Kenya said, “When Marcus Garvey’s thoughts kicks in, it will be a special day.”

I was asked to read the report and to share my observation. As I always do, I shared with the community that I would be attending and if they had any thoughts. I heard from many and highlighted a few in my official statement.

In my observations I shared the following,” my greatest concern as we move forward is our own internal struggle, psychological struggle to recognize each other.” I highlighted thoughts from Ms. Phyllis in Belize who shared, “We may have skin color/tones in common but the idea that we are all descended from those who went though the terrible ordeal often becomes an intellectual debate in America but it is concrete in the minds of those in the Diaspora.” It is time to stop skipping over Central America.

An issue of great concern for us is the issue of land ownership and preservation. This cry is heard from Colombia, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Roxbury.
I heard from Ricardo Steele in Colon, who shared, “we are facing a high level of displacement due to “progress” in our countries. Afro descendents have been living on their land forever since coming to the Western Hemisphere. We do not take out any “legal papers”. Now we have governments allowing those who want to purchase the land legally to do so and families, traditions are being displaced.”

My fellow Guerrera friend Trina took it one step further, “Environmental degradation affecting people of African descent across the Diaspora is urgent and needs more immediate attention. The negative impact (health disparities, work, sustainability, culture, food security and gender based violence) is far reaching in its consequences.”

My presence in this space was about the voices of women in the Diaspora who are playing a pivotal role in our development to move as ONE.

I was once again sharing the space with Dr. Sheila Walker and was reunited after many years with Dr. Georgina Falu.

It was in this space that I felt absolutely clear and firm after hearing the term, “non-resident African.” My spirit jumped, felt light and happy.

In my presentation I also highlighted Panama’s own journey of Garveynism. After the meeting ended I met Dr. Julius Garvey. Let me break it down familia, highlight does not give this moment it’s true merit, Goodness, “The girl from Colon met Marcus Garvey’s son,” that is what I was singing on my way back to Brooklyn.

The other highlight that also cannot be fully expressed even in this reflection was meeting Ambassador Dudley Thompson. Ambassadors Thompson’s wife came up to me after the meeting ended and shared that he wanted to meet me. He congratulated me on my words then went onto to say that we have something in common. By now, I have a permanent smile on my face. “I was born in Panama” he says. I was so excited. Here goes another Panama connection. He then said, Colon, Panama. Ok, stop the press! He is a Colonense, nada que ver!!

Ambassador Thompson shared that he has never gone home and at the age of 94 he would love to make that trip. I began planning in my head how we can make this happen and as soon as I left the building I called Mr. Richards and then also did introductions via email. My understanding is that his visit to Panama is in the planning stage.

On this stop my African Panamanian pride was beaming.

The fourth and final stop is the Red de Mujeres Afro’s presentation at the OAS before the Commission on Human Rights. We were speaking on the Human Rights of Women of African descent. I shared this space my hermanas, Ana Irma Rivera Lassen of Puerto Rico and Cecilia Ramirez of Peru. We had a full report on issues affecting us and our demands for recognition and movement.

It was important to speak on specific incidents. I had been kept afloat by Mr. Richards and Gersan Joseph of the case in Panama related to the treatment of Haitian women entering the country. The women were being harassed and abused at the Tocumen airport. What pained me the most was the derogatory terms used to describe them. This triggered old stories of Caribbean women in Panama. It is 2011 and they are still using the same terms and stories I heard as a child.

Entering this space was a validation of all the hard work by the Red de Mujeres Afro and the vision of our fierce and gentle leader, Dorotea Wilson.

This glow, this clarity is not something you turn on and off. Once it is on, you feel and see everything related to the Motherland. Once understood, then you are able to shed certain aspects of your life that cannot stand with comfort in this glow. You also gain an extra fire, to move as you should, a Queen.

The whispers of the ancestors are ongoing and this is an extension of that voice. In the closing of my paper, I wrote, “this is my journey, my development as an African woman, an activist on a search for justice and clarity and like Marcus Garvey, I am learning that “I will not give up a continent for an Isthmus.”

May we embrace this glow, may we celebrate its arrival.

In peace

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