Tuesday, November 04, 2008

I Voted!

I woke up at 5:30, showered, got dressed and walked down to the First Baptist Church on the corner. It rained overnight. Cars crashed through puddles as drivers searched for parking on the narrow street. A man fell in step beside me. He was a sixty-ish Latino wearing a heavy black overcoat that was too warm for the 60-degree weather. I remembered him from the February primaries when he stood in line behind me at this same church.

It was 6:20 when we rounded the corner and walked up the front steps of our polling place. There were about fifteen people in line, a motley crew of blacks, Hispanics and whites. Silver-haired grandmothers nursed steaming cups of coffee. Young black women pulled hoods and caps over their heads, trying to shield their straightened tresses from the spitting sky. The man, who introduced himself as Ron, suggested loudly that voters be provided with doughnuts for waking up so early. In fact, when he used to live in Sylmar, his polling place served sausage and eggs for a dollar contribution. I knew it was going to be a long wait. He proceeded to tell unfunny jokes for the next half hour. I laughed weakly. Even as I rummaged in my purse, leafed through my voter's guide and sent text messages to ignore him, he kept punctuating his monologue with one-liners about alcoholic skeletons and pet gnats. Every time someone raised a Starbucks cup to her lips, Ron smacked his own and said, "The least they could do is give us coffee."

Thirty minutes later, an additional fifty or sixty people had congregated along the south wall of the church. It started raining in earnest, and the line — three folks deep — snaked up the patio as voters huddled beneath the awning to stay dry. Ron continued to play stand-up comic to anyone who would pay attention. At this point, I was still the only one. Although I was sleepy and excited, nervous and desperately in need of a bathroom, I listened to him. He talked about the bakery where he used to work, and the business his son planned to open. He talked about past elections, and asked if I were Protestant or Episcopalian. He told me — and everyone in hearing distance — that he was voting for Barack Obama for president. He didn't talk about Obama's foreign or domestic policies, his Ivy League education or his unflappable leadership in times of crisis. Instead, he gestured to the growing crowd of single fathers and UPS drivers and special education teachers and starving artists and said simply, "He brings people together."

The doors opened at 7:00, and Ron and I went our own ways — he to the registration desk and I to the church's tiny restroom in the basement. When I returned to the main floor, the line was moving reverently along, as if people were acknowledging that they were still in a house of worship. A familiar gray-haired man in a heavy overcoat waved me over. "I saved your place," Ron said, pleased with his achievement. Pointing to a box of glazed doughnuts on the table, he said, "Think they'll let me have one? All they can say is no."

My hands trembled as I juggled my water bottle, umbrella, camera and Coach bag. I had packed extra tee-shirts in my purse for any voter caught wearing Obama gear and accused of electioneering. After removing my ballot from the InkaVote machine and asking a worker to take a picture of me posing with my ticket, I glanced around the room. The elderly gentleman was nowhere in sight. I wondered if Ron had managed to snag a sweet roll for the trip home. I searched for him as I walked down the steps of the church. By now, the line of voters overflowed the patio and streamed up to the stop sign on the corner. Strangers smiled at each other or gave the thumbs-up sign to early risers who proudly displayed their "I Voted" stickers. The sun was coming out. A sense of hope replaced the ball of nervousness that roiled in my stomach earlier that morning. Like Ron said, Obama brings people together. Maybe I'll see the garrulous grandfather around the neighborhood and buy him a cup of coffee.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Life in the Raw:
A Journey from Fear to Faith

This is where i get to be brave,
calling my pain by its name(s)
and releasing myself from the story
that pain tells me about myself.
I am the storyteller now.
This is just one of a million courageous acts
that I am making for my own healing.
I am not alone …

Blues Record/Improvising Peace: A Journal of Interactive Healing

Sunday, July 13: Escape from the City of Demons

At 5:30 in the morning, I wheel my luggage down the darkened hallway of my apartment building, en route to San Diego. I encounter no one by the bank of golden mailboxes, on the elevator, or in the underground parking garage now gashed with the murky rays of dawn. No one witnesses my escape.

The drive will take two hours. I’m functioning on two hours of sleep, since I always wait until the last minute to do laundry and pack. I promised my friend E. that I would attend church with him in San Diego, and in two-and-a-half hours, the sanctuary walls will be awash with song. I have to hurry.

I’m not fleeing Los Angeles at daybreak simply to hear a sermon in a distant city or to visit an old friend. Later in the afternoon, I will check into the Optimum Health Institute in Lemon Grove, California for a week-long stay. Weary pilgrims from all over the world seek refuge in this branch of the Free Sacred Trinity Church, hoping that a diet of raw foods, meditation and prayer can heal their diseases. My wounds are more emotional than physical. I can’t pinpoint exactly what ails me, but I’m desperate to get away — especially from myself.

It’s strange that I’m on my way to service, and that I’m voluntarily participating in a program with spiritual origins, since I haven’t prayed in months. My heart feels orphaned. I’m mad at God. I feel afraid all the time, like my life will always be a muddle of missed opportunities and thorny regrets. I feel alone, without purpose or motivation. But especially, I feel loveless, as if I’ve never known the Almighty’s caress. Lack of love in the City of Angels, especially a dearth of self-love, is dangerous.

Few cars dot the road on this early Sunday morning. The city still slumbers, hung over from a night of cheap drinks and expensive dreams. In the hazy distance, the downtown skyscrapers seem to be fading out of existence. After merging onto the 5 Freeway, I rummage in my tote bag for a CD. I want to blast Busta Rhymes or Teena Marie to stay awake on my travels and to detract from the pain constantly lodged on a shelf of my heart.

As I turn on the stereo, gospel streams from my speakers. I’m surprised, because my radio is always tuned to Pacifica, and hymns are the last thing I expect to hear from that political station. An unfamiliar song by Smokie Norful fills the car:

Though it seems like life is over/and your tragedy has no end/don't count yourself out of the game, no not yet/Pull it back together and drive right back in/It's going to work out/in time …

The lyrics loosen a knot in my chest. I feel the blues bubbling up, clogging my throat, threatening to cascade down my cheeks. I try to blink back tears, but soon nothing can staunch the flow. I have never felt so emotionally fragile, like I’m not only losing my mind, but I’m enjoying the process. I’m worried that other drivers will see my damp face and think I’m crazy. I feel my mascara coursing an inky path down my skin and onto my dress. Once my makeup wears off, there will be no reapplication. I have packed no lipstick, foundation or eye shadow for my journey. Since everyone at OHI will be detoxing on a diet of living foods and juices, participants are encouraged to forego fragrances, chemicals and other hindrances to health. This policy suits me just fine. I want to let it all go. I want to cast off the designer sorrow I’ve acquired in Los Angeles and allow my true self to emerge.

I pull into the gravelly parking lot of the church twenty minutes early. E. texts me that he’s running late, so I find a seat at the back of the sanctuary, closest to the exit. I’m nervous. Within ten minutes, I have rushed to the restroom three times. I want to bolt out of the tabernacle like some demon seed scalded with holy water. E. joins me just as the organist begins to play. After a sermon I am too preoccupied to focus on, we head to Souplantation for lunch. My friend thinks I’m quirky, but then so do most people who meet me. He watches as I pile salad on my plate and shun the commercial dressings lined up on the counter like a toxic rainbow. He calls my natural hairstyle “Afrocentric” and worries that OHI is a cult. I try to explain to him that I won’t be brainwashed, that I’m simply going away for my own healing. It’s either the Optimum Health Institute or the convent. Or the psych ward. A black woman’s blues unconnected to men or money befuddles him. But he says he’ll pray for me.

E. and I embrace one last time and then head down our own separate stretches of highway. Loneliness rings my throat, leaks from my lashes. My life seems to be a series of solo voyages. Nearly twelve years ago, I hopped a Greyhound Bus from Norristown, Pennsylvania for the sunnier climes of San Diego. What was supposed to be a two-month visit with friends turned into an 18-month odyssey. I slept on the floors, couches and futons of other people, and worked humiliating, low-paying telemarketing gigs, as I tried to decide what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Then a decade ago, I departed San Diego for the siren’s song of Los Angeles. There was no fanfare, no broken glass and confetti littered bon voyage when I left. I had no family or friends in the City of Angels, but I believed my destiny awaited me as a screenwriter. I never imagined that I’d return to this pretty coastal town on the lip of Tijuana broken down, lost and in the throes of despair. I try to convince myself that every place I’ve been to in my life — real or figurative, every triumph and every heartache — has only served to make me stronger. Riding the wave of this thought, I pull up to the gates of the Optimum Health Institute.

I envisioned OHI as some Amish-type settlement tucked in the armpit of civilization, nestled among oak trees and fields of clover. I was wrong. The campus is located in the middle of a quiet residential street, just down the road from Target, Bank of America and an Arco gas station. As the automatic gate closes behind my car, I realize that I will be spending the next seven days of my life away from all that is familiar: No friends, no family, no laptop, no cyberspace, no blogs, no news, no Internet porn, no masturbating myself into a coma. But I need this solitude to sort out my thoughts and emotions, and to empower myself.

At 2:00 p.m. when I walk up to the front office to register, I notice that there aren’t many people fanning themselves in patio chairs or traipsing across the manicured lawns. I’m grateful for the anonymity. My eyes are still red-rimmed from crying, and I don’t want to stand out like a scared kid on the first day of school. I grab my room key and retreat to #72, which I have all to myself. I initially booked a double-occupancy room because it was cheaper, but I quickly changed my reservation when I learned that we have to self-administer enemas every day as part of our detox.

As I cross the campus, I see twin hummingbirds flitting between the regal arms of a bird of paradise flower. Butterflies float daintily by. It’s as if the Almighty has made this 129-mile trip down the highway with me. Once inside my room, I unpack within fifteen minutes instead of leaving my clothes in my luggage for days, as I normally do. But I feel as though I’m on the cusp of a major life change, a re-birthing process. I want to make a fresh start. The day before, I threw away most of my chemical-laden cosmetics (couldn’t part ways with the M.A.C. makeup just yet), and for the first time in my life purchased all-natural deodorant, soap and toothpaste. I’m pleased to learn that OHI features organic flax seed soap in the bathroom, and all the water on the campus is filtered and reverse-osmosis — even in the shower.

A few hours later, the “First Weekers,” as we are called, line up on the front lawn for a tour of the compound. I have traded in my Sunday best for a pair of jeans and a cotton top. Wearing no makeup or jewelry, I feel so plain, the antithesis of Venus. I’m struggling to embrace my natural beauty. Most of the guests are middle-aged and white, but I see a smattering of brown faces in the crowd of about 30. Our guide is munching on purslane, an edible weed that he plucked from the OHI grounds. He offers this bitter bounty to us. As I accept a leaf from his fingers, I know there is no turning back now. I want to wring as many new experiences from my stay as possible. Never before would I have accepted a strange plant from a strange man not knowing if he had washed his hands. But now? I’m ready for anything. This is boot camp for the beleaguered, life in the raw.

Our group marches down a meandering lane, past a little chapel complete with stained glass windows, past a gurgling outdoor water fountain. We come to a stop in a courtyard beneath a carob tree, and our guide gives us a glimpse into his history. He is a missionary, someone who has completed a three-week stay at OHI, and who lives and volunteers at the retreat for at least three months. I wonder how it would feel to be a missionary. For the past few months, I have flirted with the idea of becoming a nun, of leaving starlets, silicone and the industry behind. I just want to live in a small safe place where I can sleep, write and read all day. But even as I yearn for solitude, I crave the company of others.

In the lessening light, the Second and Third Weekers join us on the lawn. Now even more people of color gather, and I’m grateful for the community and kinship. We form a prayer circle to bless our dinner and to meditate on the word of the day: acceptance. I clasp the hands nearest me. This is an alien sensation, because hailing from an undemonstrative clan, I’m not used to hugging or touching other folks. But for the next seven days, these strangers will be my family.

Finally, it’s dinner time, and I try not to sprint to the multipurpose room. I haven’t eaten since the Souplantation at noon. I’m looking forward to having all of my meals prepared each day, knowing that everything is 100 percent raw. Tonight’s menu consists of sauerkraut, seed cheese, sprouts and a dehydrated cracker. I see several guests glancing curiously at the evening’s fare as if they have mistakenly picked up a plate of earthworms. There is an array of homemade seasonings on the table, and people are drowning their dinner in dulse flakes, kelp, garlic and gomashio. I feel like a raw rock star since I’ve been eating living foods for three months, and I’m ready to dig in.

I shake seasonings on my meal and then look around for a place to sit. The coming week will be a whirlwind of information and activities. In preparation for that, OHI has provided all participants with a planner so we can keep track of our water, wheatgrass and rejuvelac intake, note our daily exercise and classes, journal our thoughts and make entries in our gratitude diaries. I feel like a scientist performing an important experiment, concocting a formula of hope and self-recovery.

As I carry my plate and planner out of the dining area, I hear a familiar voice calling my name …

From my journal, July 13: I accept myself, no matter what my hair, or skin, or thighs or butt look like. I am a divine being, a child of God. I am worthy and valuable. I. ACCEPT. MYSELF. I am giving my body a chance to heal, and my emotions are healing as well. I trust God. I trust the process. All is well in my world.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Raw Rehab (or Sisters of the [Dehydrated] Yam

Lord, I've known sleeping women.
Women who've slept for lives at a time
On sunny afternoons, and purple evenings.
Women who sleep sound, and live silently.
Some dreams never to be heard of again …
They've taught myself how to sleep
Having swallowed the moon.
Sleep 'till mid afternoon.
And yearn for the silence of night
To sleep sound once again.

–Saul Williams

I’m not Catholic, but last month found me Googling “convents Los Angeles.”

Even though rocking a nun’s habit and sleeping in a monastic cell isn’t especially appealing to me, I wanted to escape, to “get away from it all.”

More than simply retreating from my reality, I wanted to shut my brain down. The thought of doing the simplest tasks, like vacuuming my apartment or preparing dinner, brought me to tears. I hid my loneliness in Internet porn and white wine. It’s tragically funny, but in the midst of my despondency, I still tried to adhere to raw food tenets and only consume alcoholic beverages that weren’t processed. And yet, I still got drunk, and I still drove home from the restaurant or the club buzzed, almost as if I had a death wish.

Depression is something that I’ve struggled with chronically since I was 14, but I was never officially diagnosed until about seven years ago. At that time, I was also suffering from anxiety attacks, driving myself to the hospital, and camping out in the E.R. parking lot because I didn’t have health insurance. The panic attacks manifested as heart palpitations or chest pain, and I was convinced that I was having a heart attack — once a week. I needed to be close to a hospital so that a doctor could revive me in time.

In my battle with the blues, there isn’t one triggering incident that sets me off — like the death of a loved one or loss of a job. It’s more like a free-floating angst that I can’t pinpoint. Feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness converge in my consciousness. And so I sleep. Or sometimes, I don’t sleep. I just get in bed, pull the covers over my head and cry.

In talking to my sisterfriends, I realize that I’m not alone. Many of my girlfriends suffer from depression in some form. Their blues may manifest as withdrawal, crying jags, and not having the strength or the desire to clean their homes. This cry for help goes largely ignored by well-meaning friends because black women are supposed to be strong enough to deal.

I’m not a martyr to my mental health issues. I have taken Effexor and Xanax in the past to manage my depression and anxiety. At first, I refused to take pharmaceuticals, so I sought out herbal alternatives like Valerian. But the same day I started that bitter supplement, I careened into the parking lots of three different emergency rooms on a sixty-four mile drive from Los Angeles to Riverside to visit a friend. After that day, I got my prescription filled. I hated to be lumped in with neurotic white chicks who popped Prozac and Zoloft like Skittles. But I knew every hospital within a 25-mile radius of my home, and I couldn’t keep rotating Emergency Room parking lots every time my left arm started hurting or my heart pounded a staccato beat in my chest.

The thing that saddens — and frustrates — me is that I can’t get this manic monkey off my back. Depression isn’t a bizarre memento that you can keep safely packed away in a keepsake chest. Sometimes I can go months feeling that I’m loved, my future is on track, and all is well in my world. Other times, I feel lost.

I’m a spiritual person, but in the midst of this sporadic sorrow, I feel as if God has never known my name. Maybe that’s why I was online checking for convents. In my mind, becoming a nun would fulfill my desire for anonymity, communnion with the Almighty and solitude. I imagined myself, hair hidden beneath a black-and-white habit, as I traversed some lonely hillside near the abbey, humming “My Favorite Things.”

Fortunately, I discovered a pit stop on my way to the nunnery. Back in February, a raw foodist friend hipped me to the Optimum Health Institute in San Diego. She stayed there for three weeks when she was diagnosed with cancer, and believes the raw food meals that OHI serves, coupled with the program’s focus on prayer and meditation, vastly improved her condition. I had researched OHI at the time, but didn’t think I could afford the tuition, and I knew I couldn’t take three weeks off from my job. But I needed to go somewhere … before I went crazy. Last week, I inquired into OHI’s program, and discovered that the minimum stay is one week. During that time, I could detox — mentally, spiritually and physically — on organic non-cooked food, wheat grass shots, colonics, massage, yoga and exercise. It’s like an ashram meets the spa!

I don’t write about my neuroses from the perspective of a victim, but as a woman who is engaged in an ongoing process of self-empowerment. Black women aren’t supposed to be depressed in the first place, let alone discuss their interior pain. But as bell hooks writes in Sisters of the Yam: “It is important that black people talk to one another, that we talk with friends and allies, for the telling of our stories enables us to name our pain, our suffering and to seek healing.”

As I type this, my suitcase is lying on my bed, loaded down with self-help books, positive affirmation cards, poetry books and my Saul Williams She CD. I can’t wait to embark on my healing journey in the a.m. If I had the money, I would start a non-profit like OHI for women of color. A chill place the homies can go to worship, be served uncooked vegan meals, be pampered, to commune with each other and to name our pain. Raw rehab. Now that’s a sister act.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Raw Divatude: Reclaiming My Inner Vegan Vixen

Most black women own a pair of jeans that they love, that flatter their curves, that display the derrière in high definition. Sadly, I’m curves-free, and I suffer from booty envy. But once upon a time, during my sojourn in the City of Angels, I did have denim that I adored. They made me feel sexy. Not Kim-Kardashian-showing-off-the-backshot-every-time-there-is-a-paparazzo-in-breathing-distance sexy, but confident. More than just a functional relationship, the jeans symbolized my victory in the battle of the bulge, a formerly overweight chick at ease in her own skin.

My denim was far from designer, but a cast-off Mudd brand that I had inherited from a good friend. They were a tight size 7, not camel-toe inducing, but comfortably cradling my tush, my hips and my legs. I never washed my jeans; I had them dry cleaned to preserve their true blue swagger, and I wore them like a uniform to the club, the industry parties and once, even up in the sanctuary.

But that fateful day arrived when I was no longer able to zip my jeans. No amount of struggling, lying on the bed, or sucking in my gut would force those defiant metal teeth to close. Even though junk food had been my constant companion, and I had gained about twenty pounds at the time, I felt sure that my true blue wouldn’t betray me.

I had struggled with my weight before, but a strict vegan diet helped me to lose fifty pounds, and I plummeted from 175 to 125 in 2000. I was able to hold obesity at bay until about 2005. A steady diet of emotional eating, lack of exercise and sporadic depression helped to pack the pounds back on. Even as my midsection expanded, I desperately clung to the belief that I was still a fly girl goddess flaunting my loveliness in size sevens. But I had to face the fabric. When I tried to squeeze into my jeans, they would rise no higher than my thighs. I was crushed. The love affair had ended. With much sadness, I bid those denims adieu, packing them away in the furthest recesses of my closet, a purgatory for pants that had not yet passed over to the other side.

I laid my jeans and my confidence to rest two years ago. In no time at all, I went from hottie to haus frau, hiding my girth in flowy skirts, oversized shirts and muu-muus. Belts were out, as was lycra. I wore nothing that called attention to my gut or my ponderous thighs. From time to time, I would venture to the nether regions of my closet, pushing past hanger after hanger of elastic-waisted pants, and hideous size 14 skirts, just to touch the fabric that once lovingly enshrouded my sexiness.

I was morose for a while, refusing to linger in full-length mirrors or department store fitting rooms. Not only did I miss my jeans, but I missed my self-esteem. A black woman without self-worth in Los Angeles — where fashion billboards glare down at her, daring her to aspire to Melrose’s size 2 standards of beauty, and every other ad is touting tummy tucks and liposuction — is lost indeed.

I found my mojo in living foods. On April 16, I embarked on a journey into the world of unprocessed, raw foods, and I haven’t looked back. No more lonely nights on the couch with a bag of Uncle Eddie’s vegan cookies and a book, or a bag of Barbara’s All Natural Potato Chips and a Slurpee. If it doesn’t grow, I don’t eat it. It’s that simple. I find my strength in sprouts and smoothies.

A little over a month after eating raw foods only, I lost 16 pounds. Although the mirrors of Nordstrom and Arden B. still intimidated me, I was slowly regaining my confidence. Not only did my new lifestyle provide me with tons of energy and mental clarity, I was also able to reclaim my inner vixen.

A few weeks ago, while getting dressed for work, I decided to try on some outfits that I hadn’t worn in awhile. While riffling through my wardrobe, my hand fell on the hanger that houses my beloved jeans. Even though I hadn’t been weighing myself regularly, I was certain they would fit. It was time for my old friend to cross over from pants purgatory to the heaven that is my heinie.

Cautiously, I wiggled into them. With some struggle, they rose over my thighs, but what if the defiant metal teeth still refused to close? As I zipped and buttoned my jeans, I felt like doing cartwheels in my bedroom. My sexiness had been resurrected. To be sure, my muffin top was still in effect, albeit not as bloated as before. My inner thighs still kissed. Not a long, passionate smooch, mind you, but a friendly peck. Self-love indeed.

Earlier this week, while at the nude Olympic Spa in Koreatown, I decided to weigh myself. What better time to hop on the scale than when you’re in the buff? To my surprise, I was 148 pounds. I’ve lost 27 pounds since April 16. Although I’m ecstatic to be within 10.5 pounds of my goal weight of 137.5, what brings me greater joy is feeling blissful in my own skin.

No matter how much weight I lose, I’ll never be bootylicious, nor do I aspire to be. But there’s nothing wrong with flaunting a little raw divatude in my denim.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Mane Manifesto (or The Nappy Goddess Emerges)

Give me your perms
Your fried hair
Your huddled naps
Yearning to breathe free …

kitchen \kich- ɘn\ n. 1: a place (as a room) with cooking facilities. 2: a [shameful] place at the nape of a black woman’s neck that houses her naps; resistant to heat. See also buckshot and beedy bees.

I was having a Do the Right Thing moment. It was a sweltering Saturday afternoon, and I was driving back home from Juliano’s, my favorite raw food restaurant in Santa Monica. Perspiration leaked down the sides of my face. My halter was clinging to me like a needy kid, and I was feeling cantankerous. Even the maca iced coffee that I had recently chugged down couldn’t cool off my emotions. Like Mookie, the ne’er-do-well pizza delivery guy from Spike Lee’s epic flick, I was certain the triple-digit heat would force me to do something radical.

Stuck in traffic on the 405 freeway and listening to Mary J.’s womanist anthem “Just Fine,” I fingered my kitchen, the snarl of hair at my nape. Although I secretly preferred this kinky texture to my straightened, highlighted tresses, like most black women with processed coifs, this area was often kept hidden, a deep source of personal shame if someone rolled up on you from behind and saw your buckshot on display.

I had been thinking about my mane a lot lately. Even though I was on an every-two-weeks schedule with my hairdresser, the flurry of flat irons, blow dryers and spritz, and the results they produced — kink-free tresses — didn't bring me as much joy as they once did.

For colored girls who have considered peroxide …
When I met with my stylist last month, we laid out my look for the summer. She would give me a cute short cut and then highlight the hell out of it. I was thinking in advance of the praise I would receive for my bold new look, how the multi-hued ‘do would compliment my features and the color-coordinated outfits and accessories I would rock with my new style. But I couldn’t shake the unease I felt about going through with the plan. Every subsequent visit to the salon found me putting off the peroxide. My hair had been growing out for a few months, and I was reluctant to undergo a chemical process. Dare I say it didn’t feel natural?

Just as I had embraced a raw foods diet a few months ago — shunning chemicals and processed foods — I was experiencing a similar paradigm shift with my tresses. I felt like my hair needed to be healed.

Deep down, I didn’t want my mane to become my identity. Although I liked the attention from folks in the organic market and random shoppers at the mall, I felt weighed down by my hair. As summer approached and temperatures climbed, my social life was restricted. The slightest bit of moisture could wreck my pressed coif. Invites to the beach were reluctantly accepted, swimming was a no-no, bikram yoga was definitely out. Even exercise was limited for fear of jacking up my edges and incurring the knotty wrath of my kitchen.

A radical idea was budding. I would cut my hair. Off. All the color out of it. I would rock a natural hairstyle, free of chemicals, preservatives, BHT, Yellow #5 and dye. Immediately after I had that thought, I was gripped with fear. I couldn’t chop my hair off. I lived in L.A. — the yaki capital of the U.S., where long hair is privileged and straight hair is queen. Ten years of living in this town have shown me that most people judge you on appearance alone. Folks would no longer think I was cute. Brothers wouldn’t look at me three ways. White women would pet my hair and fetishize and exoticize as if I were some caged animal on display at Universoul Circus.

Reluctant revolutionary
So I was still stuck in a sea of chrome and brake lights, humming along to Mary J. and trying to figure out the future of my mane. Short cut and highlights? Shorn like Audre Lorde? What was a diva to do?

I’m conscious … for the most part. I realize that natural hair is a form of resistance to accepted standards of beauty, a smack in the face to the weaves and extensions that were blowing past me on the 405 freeway from convertibles and through the windows of SUVs. Unprocessed hair is also a form of self-love, a way of saying, “Yes, I accept and embrace my kitchen, in all its kinky glory. I am black and beautiful.”

And yet the most pressing (no pun intended) decision on my mind was this: How could I rock a natural look and still preserve my flyness? In my mind, unprocessed hair was reserved for revolutionaries, and even though I’m down with Fanon and bell hooks, and listen to Pacifica radio on the daily, I wasn’t ready to trade in my designer duds for kente cloth and cowrie shells.

Like Mookie, I had a decision to make. I couldn’t deny that I felt oppressed by my tresses. I didn’t feel like a fully self-actualized woman with my current state of hair. Besides, it was hot as hell, and I wanted to get in the water without worrying about my locks for once.

Like Mookie, I was a reluctant revolutionary on the threshold of enlarging my consciousness. I envisioned Spike Lee’s character on the cusp of such a decision, an average Joe, an affable baby daddy with a one track mind — to get paid. But a sizzling New York day brought out his inner militant. I pictured him in the scene outside Sal’s pizza parlor, Radio Raheem dead at his feet, white racist cops behind him trying to restrain the growing black tribe of protesters. I saw this common pizza delivery cat picking up a trash can, and with an angry warrior cry of “Radio!” smashing the plate glass window of his oppression, increasing the margins of his existence.

I too am just an average chick with a one-track mind — a desire to succeed as a writer in the sunny jungle of La La Land. But the heat — external and internal — has radicalized me. I have been wearing my hair straightened or chemically processed since I was eleven, the victim of a failed kiddie perm. It was time to change the paradigm. I would defiantly break through the attempts at marginalization based on my appearance, even those efforts that were self-inflicted. I would cut my hair off, and I would still be fly, Ntozake Shange of the Sex and the City set. I saw the nappy goddess in me and loved her fiercely.

Kitchen liberation politics
By the time I exited the freeway and was a few miles from home, my mind was made up. My hair would be three or more inches shorter before sunset. As if further confirming my decision, I saw a peculiar sign outside my neighborhood church. Every week, the marquee in front of the building features a new message, and this week’s motto was: “Let’s go swimming.” It was as if the Almighty himself was saying, “Just do it already. Sheesh!”

As soon as I stepped into my apartment, I changed clothes, washed my hair and grabbed a pair of scissors. But uncertainty was a clenched fist in my chest. Even though the ends of my mane were dry and damaged from years of highlights and press ‘n curls, I was hesitant to part with those dead strands. I would be severing myself from an identity that I had held onto for so long, one that I had privileged and cherished.

But my kitchen was begging for liberation and defiantly so. The day’s heat had morphed that area into a baby afro. I was already halfway through the process. Why not just hack off the dead hair and let my new, revitalized self emerge?

Emboldened, I started snipping. I lifted a handful of hair and cut it. Lift and cut, lift and cut, lift and cut, until my reddish-brown tresses pooled at my feet. I stared at myself for a long time in the mirror, trying to decide if I liked my new look. I checked myself out from all angles, taking in the jagged tufts of hair, the kinky-curly texture, the bold new kitchen that had suddenly shifted out of the shadows and into the light. I liked my new style, but more importantly, I liked me.

Lady in the Water
The next day, I threw on a bikini under my sun dress and headed to Santa Monica beach. In the ten years that I’ve lived in Los Angeles, I can count the times that I’ve visited this particular body of water, or Venice Beach or Malibu, on both hands. But I was on a mission to submerge myself.

As usual, the shore was filled with sun seekers, kite-flying kids and couples getting their PDA on on a beach towel. I found a spot on the sand next to a woman engrossed in a novel. After asking her to watch my bag, I headed to the water’s edge, unafraid this time. I splashed handfuls of the Pacific Ocean on my upper body, getting acclimated to the cold temperature. In the distance, surfers rode a massive wave, whooping with delight. I rushed to meet it, and the briny breaker washed over me, baptizing me into my new life.

I stood in the ocean for a while, watching seagulls lazily circling overhead, gazing at the mountains sloping in the hazy distance. Not only would I be a fly girl with a natural ‘do, I would also become a beach bum. Maybe I would make the trek to Malibu next weekend. Whichever shore I selected, I knew I wouldn’t have to worry about my kitchen. My kinks were on display for the world to see, and for once, I was unashamed. I knew I had done the right thing.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Resurrecting Jamiel’s Dream

Parents should never have to bury their kids. They should never have to stand at a bier gazing down at the body of their beloved, but Jamiel Sr. and Anita Shaw were unable to escape such a heartbreaking fate.

Yesterday, I went to the homegoing ceremony for their son, Jamiel. Affectionately known as “Jas,” the 17-year-old football star was gunned down last week three doors from his home. I don’t know the Shaws, and I’m not a friend of the family. I have never attended a funeral for a total stranger. I’m not like that nosy old lady who scans her newspaper’s obituary column and then enlists a gaggle of grannies to bumrush random burials. Jamiel’s death moved me. I wanted to stand in solidarity with his loved ones, as well as figure out how I could contribute to the healing of a city shattered by gang violence.

I slunk into the sanctuary of West Angeles Church of God in Christ, worrying that my outfit was a bit too bright for the somber occasion. Eric Clapton’s song “Tears in Heaven” played in the background as a montage of images — Jamiel as a baby being cradled by his grandfather, the chubby-cheeked toddler getting his first haircut, the pre-teen lovingly embracing his pops — rotated on the jumbo screens. Ushers shook tissue boxes at arriving mourners. Little boys strutted proudly in their too-big suits, blissfully unaware of the heartbreak on the program.

I walked up to the altar to view the body, right behind men wearing yellow gang intervention jackets. A teen behind me muttered, “I hate this shit!” From his angry outburst, I knew it wasn’t the first funeral he’d attended for a friend and probably wouldn’t be the last.

Jamiel lay in a blue casket draped with a white veil, a male sleeping beauty who would awaken with the kiss of a princess. He could have been anyone’s son, cousin, nephew, best friend. I couldn’t look at his face. I felt guilty. I focused instead on the interior of the coffin, which was inscribed with the hymn, “May the work I’ve done speak for me.” The words should have been a testament to a 70-year-old man, not a 17-year-old kid who looked forward to playing ball at Stanford or Rutgers.

Shortly after I took my seat, Jamiel’s family and friends filed in. His teammates — sporting cornrows and blowouts and fades — led the funeral procession in their blue-and-white football jerseys. Some wept openly. Others were mean-muggin as if on the field staring down an invincible foe. Next in line was the family, also wearing suits and dresses in Jamiel’s school colors. I lost track of his mom and dad in the bleak parade, but I caught their reactions on the overhead screen. Jamiel’s mother, Sgt. Anita Mae Shaw, was in Iraq on her second tour of duty when she received the phone call that her son was dead. Now she joined his father at the lip of the casket and his 9-year-old brother, Thomas. His parents viewed the body for a long time, shaking their heads in disbelief. Jamiel Sr. pressed a black handkerchief to his eyes frequently.

I’ve often wondered how families hold on to their faith when it seems as though they’re staring at the very nape of the Almighty. But even through her tears, Sgt. Shaw sang along with the soloists, or raised her hand, testifying, as they belted out “His Eye is on the Sparrow” and “Walk around Heaven”:

One of these mornings
It won’t be long
You’ll look for me
And I’ll be gone

I’m going to a place
Where I’ll have nothing to do
But just walk around
All day

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa addressed the 300 or 400 mourners in the cathedral and preached a message of forgiveness.

“Jamiel would tell us to remember him with our actions,” he said. "I think he'd tell us that we can't give in to fear, that we must stand up to it."

He recalled how he initially crossed paths with the teen. Shortly after his election, Mayor Villaraigosa planted a tree in the Shaws’ neighborhood to signify the growth and revitalization he envisioned for the city. In a twist of fate that is darkly poetic, when Jamiel was shot, his body fell a few feet away from the tree.

Jamiel Shaw Sr. rose to pay tribute to his son, apologizing in advance if he broke down on the dais. He denounced the idea that interracial hatred played a part in his son’s death, pointing out that Jas had many Hispanic friends and classmates.

“Jamiel was above black and brown,” he said, instructing the cameraperson to pan the football team, a patchwork of brown and black faces. “If blacks and Latinos come together, you know how powerful that will be?”

The elder Shaw pointed to a picture of Jamiel on the stage. The teen had taken the photo but died before it was developed. It showed Jamiel in his blue-and-white #4 jersey, holding a football, confidently pointing at the camera. This same image, I would later learn, was emblazoned on flyers beneath the ominous caption, “Do You Know Who Killed Me?”

“He’s pointing to us, and he’s saying, 'It’s up to you,'” Jamiel’s father said, his voice breaking. “It’s up to each one of us to make a difference so we can walk in our communities.”

Although the football star never realized his father’s “18-year plan” to ultimately go to college by staying in school and off drugs, Jamiel Sr. wants to continue that dream for other teens by establishing a foundation in his son’s name.

The eulogy was delivered by Dr. Hozell C. Francis, who is also Jamiel’s uncle. Dressed in a red-and-white robe, the pastor spoke fondly of baptizing his nephew, of the young adult who was always respectful to his elders, who attended church every Sunday and led his team in prayer before their games. But anger punctuated his conversational tone.

“We’ve got to do better than this!” he said, voice thundering through the sanctuary. He paused to note the irony of Sgt. Shaw flying home from Iraq to bury her son. “Here is a mother fighting terrorism on foreign soil, and lo and behold, street terrorism is right here.”

Even though Pastor Francis admitted that he couldn’t make sense of Jamiel’s murder, he didn’t want the young man’s death to be in vain. He encouraged the mourners, particularly the younger generation, to embrace the scripture Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

Although it seems like hope was sealed up in a baby blue casket and laid to rest at Inglewood Park Cemetery, I do believe there is another plan. There has to be. Parents should not have to bury their babies. Just two days after Jamiel’s murder, 6-year-old Lavarea Elvy was shot by alleged gang members while riding in his parents’ SUV. He remains in critical condition with a bullet lodged in his head. Thirteen-year-old Anthony Ezquiel Escobar wasn’t so lucky. Two days after Lavarea’s shooting, Anthony walked into his neighbor’s yard to pick lemons and was later found with a gunshot wound to the head. He died with the fruit still clenched in his fists. His killers, alleged gangbangers, are still at large.

After the funeral, I received a text that one of Jamiel's killers was in police custody. Ironically, the Shaws were burying their son while the man accused of murdering him faced the death penalty. The arrest won’t bring Jamiel back, but it sends a message to gangbangers that terrorizing our kids won’t be tolerated. As Jamiel Sr. says, every child should be able to walk in his neighborhood without fear.

As I type this, Jamiel’s “Do You Know Who Killed Me?” flyer is propped up beside my laptop. And all I can think about is a gifted teen lying in a pool of blood beneath the tree that symbolized so much hope. We can’t raise Jas from the dead, but we can work to resurrect his dream.

To donate to the Foundation for Jamiel Shaw II, contact the USC Federal Credit Union, University Park Campus, 1025 W 34th Street, King Hall, 2nd Floor MC 2280, Los Angeles, CA 90089. Phone: (213) 821-7100 and fax: (213) 821-7151.

If you have any information regarding the murder of Jamiel A. Shaw II, please contact the Los Angeles Police Department. The toll-free number is (877) LAWFULL. A reward is being offered.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Fear of a Brown Planet, Part Dos

Reading my city’s homicide blog has become a guilty pleasure for me, like collecting Coach bags and surfing for Internet porn. The listings, compiled weekly from the Los Angeles County coroner’s office, are classified according to race and method of murder. Occasionally, the blog provides a snapshot of the victim’s life so as not to reduce him or her to just another faceless statistic. While I sympathize with the families of the departed, I still feel like a Peeping Tom gazing into other people’s pain.

I came across an entry a few days ago that shattered the window of my cyber voyeurism: the murder of 17-year-old Jamiel Shaw. Shaw was a high school MVP who was wooed by Stanford and Rutgers mere days before his death. His story had all the elements of an urban tragedy: a promising football star shot down right before he made it out of the hood, a killing that occurred three doors from his house, a mother on her second tour of duty in Iraq returning home to bury her son. Yet, one detail of this horrific crime infuriated me more than any other: Shaw’s assailants were Hispanic.

It’s hypocritical of me to ruminate on the interracial aspect of this murder because statistics show that 90 percent of black victims are killed by fellow blacks. Would I be as angry if Shaw were a garden-variety gangbanger caught in a hail of Crips gunfire, or if he were a Latino honor student ambushed by black thugs? Sadly, I wouldn’t. Maybe I have bought into the media hype of “ethnic cleansing" in Los Angeles, from the senseless killing of 14-year-old Cheryl Green — a black eighth grader who was gunned down by Hispanic gang members as she played with her friends — to Latino gangs like Florencia 13 and the Avenues who were involved in several high-profile racially motivated homicides. When I’m driving through certain areas of L.A. lined with bodegas y laundromats, I have an illogical fear of being targeted for my skin color. Sometimes I feel like the proverbial white woman who clutches her purse as a black guy walks past her on the sidewalk.

Maybe I’m guilty of racial fealty. Maybe I privilege the preservation and superiority of my own tribe above all others, and Shaw’s death — the good black kid on the road to success — deducts points from the ethnic scoreboard. Maybe I’ve allowed myself to get caught up in a wave of anti-Hispanic hysteria, which pushes the narrative that Latinos are hostile to African-Americans, won’t vote for a black presidential candidate and are taking all the good jobs.

Whatever the case, I've allowed my emotions to get the best of me. Right after I read about the running back’s violent death, I fired off an e-mail to Antonio Villaraigosa, the Latino mayor of Los Angeles. The angry missive began by accusing him of stumping across the country for Hillary Clinton to drum up Hispanic support for her campaign while black-and-brown conflict was escalating in his own backyard, and ended with the assumption that if a rash of black-on-brown crime occurred in Los Angeles, he’d be holding bilingual press conferences weekly. The e-mail was vitriolic, racist and a bit premature. As I sheepishly noted hours after hitting the send button, Mayor Villaraigosa attended a candlelight vigil for Shaw and said his murder may be prosecuted as a hate crime.

I don’t want to become that angry black chick with fears of a brown planet. I don't want to be that dysfunctional diva who panics at the sight of every newly erected bilingual billboard, who reduces every Hispanic – regardless of country of origin – to Mexican, who contemplates calling the cops on the homeowners across the street for blasting merengue from an ancient radio on their back porch, but who tolerates the deafening bass of My Chemical Romance emanating from the apartment of the college students next door, who fears driving south of Wilshire or east of Vermont, and who allows self-imposed perimeters to not only block out “aliens,” but to fence herself in.

Even in the midst of his anguish, Jamiel Shaw Sr. didn’t view his son as the casualty of a brewing race war. "I don't see it as black and brown," he said during an interview. "I see it as a gang problem."

I could take some notes from the elder Shaw and examine my own prejudices. Instead of viewing every injustice through a brown-and-black lens, I need to determine what I can do to promote tolerance and healing.

As of this writing, the homicide blog is featuring a snapshot of Antwan Cole, a 19-year-old black male who “loved people” and “was going places.” The former football player, who had dreams of becoming a sports commentator, was shot at a bus stop after his evening shift. Instead of scanning the ten or eleven paragraphs of his memorial to see if his assailants were Spanish-speaking, I can honor Cole’s life — as well as Shaw’s — by focusing on his legacy.

To donate to the Foundation for Jamiel Shaw II, contact the USC Federal Credit Union, University Park Campus, 1025 W 34th Street, King Hall, 2nd Floor MC 2280, Los Angeles, CA 90089. Phone: (213) 821-7100 and fax: (213) 821-7151.

If you have any information regarding the murder of Jamiel A. Shaw II, please contact the Los Angeles Police Department. The toll-free number is (877) LAWFULL. A reward is being offered.