Who will eulogize the greatest eulogist we’ve ever known? Week this hit me most was the week I saw him deliver the eulogy for Sekou Sundiata bout 3 days before he offered one up for Max Roach. “For me, writing a eulogy is very much part of a writer’s central purpose, which is not supposed to be serving as a spontaneous reflector of one’s self, but as an investigator of a useful shared vision” -that’s from the intro to his collection of Eulogies. I have no further words at this time–just gratitude for Baraka’s generosity, his generous ears and eyes receiving and revealing our blues…all blues.
This photo is by Alf Khumalo. I was actually trying to find his image of Hugh Masekela jumping 10 ft in the air holding the new trumpet he’d just received from Louis Armstrong, also by Khumalo, but this one came up first. It will take a while to write more coherently about Madiba’s passing…but I’m just thinking about my gratitude for his teaching, the gift of his wisdom. I’m also moved because just hours before hearing of Mandela’s passing I finished the last “Jazz Speaks for Life” class of the semester, the amazing course I’ve been T.A.-ing for with Dr. Guthrie Ramsey. The applause we had at the end of class and these testimonies from the students we’ve been receiving about how taking this class and being introduced to this music has changed their lives has served as a sweet upbeat to the blues of my grief for our planet’s loss. And all this makes me turn to another wise teacher…this is from Thich Nhat Hanh’s “Creating True Peace: Ending Violence in Yourself, Your Family, Your community and the World”…part 2 of the Five Touchings of the Earth ceremony…
In gratitude, I bow to all generations of ancestors in my spiritual family. (bell, touch the earth). I see in myself my teachers, the ones who show me the way of love and understanding, the way to breathe, smile, forgive, and live deeply in the present moment….I ask these spiritual ancestors to transmit to me their infinite source of energy, peace, stability, understanding, and love. I vow to practice to transform the suffering in myself and the world, and to transmit their energy to future generations…
My deepest bows and smiles to you dear Madiba. Viva!
“If we had known you in a time of peace, we would have loved your peacefulness…we missed our chance”
This line is from Alice Walker’s poem, “Winnie Mandela: We Love You.” I think it was one Christmas in college that my mom bought me the Walker poetry volume, Her Blue Body, Everything We Know that contains this poem…and it was right around the time the recently released, Nelson Mandela came to the Oakland Coliseum…oh did we dance that day! I recently googled the “ain’t gonna play Sun City” video and realized I’d forgotten so many of the artist who joined Little Stevie Van Zandt, including that insistent opening trumpet line from Miles Davis. These are blurry thoughts running together, but I’ve been in such a wave of late 80′s early 90′s nostalgia as I am taking an amazing graduate course on Nelson Mandela this fall taught by Rita Barnard, as well as T.A.-ing a History of Jazz course taught by Guthrie Ramsey who just got through 2 weeks on the Miles Davis Autobiography. With his permission I also loaded up Pearl Cleage’s “Mad at Miles” essay on the course website, along with my sister Imani Tolliver’s poem “Kind of Blue” (visit her site and read that glory right now! One of the most amazing poems about forgiveness I’ve ever read.) . And it hit me, Miles Davis helps me with Winnie Mandela. The photo at the top of the post is one I took of a poster-sized print of Winnie in the house she shared with Nelson on Vilakazi Street in Soweto (now a museum, though she still lives in Soweto not far from there they say…), and captures the Winnie we all loved, well many of us African Americans circa 1980′s loved unconditionally…
Reading through the TRC hearings, and other recent writing about Winnie, at the same time we are exposing 50 UPenn undergrads to the life, brutality and brilliance of Miles Davis, I’m invited to grapple with Winnie’s story/stories in new ways. In my mind and heart I have to consider what I really believe about “the truth”, whole truth, half truth, hard, hidden, horrifying, every kind of truth and figure out how I can get to the grace of Imani’s forgiveness…. I do know my life is more full if I hold Miles and Winnie in all their humanness rather than reject them as monsters….
Really enjoyed Njabulo Ndebele’s The Cry of Winnie Mandela (just got re-released in South AFrica, hopefully the new kindle edition is coming soon our way), which imagines four South African township women in conversations, letters, ultimately a roadtrip with Winnie. The imaginary Winnie in the text seems so relieved to have four women to talk with, to share her story without an obligation to confess…made me wonder if/how lonely she was, is…. Did Winnie ever listen to Miles…I kept hearing “Someday my Prince Will Come” while reading the Ndebele novel which is essentially a meditation on women and waiting…hmmm
Forgive my long absence on this blog…so much going on with UPenn life…so many Philly joys and demands…I so appreciate folk for continuing to pop in to the site…hang in if you can!
Also have had a couple nice pieces published the last few months that I’ll link here. One was a review of Emily Raboteau’s Searching for Zion:The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora…a joy to read and to write! And just last month I had a piece published in the Harvard Divinity School Bulletin on Martin Luther King’s trip to Ghana in 1957.
“To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” Nelson Mandela
The Afrikan Freedom Station’s founder and freedom dreamer, Steve Kwena Mokwena hosted our first Bad Friday screening in Johannesburg. He handed me the venue’s postcard which features his original painting of a bright red heart with what looks like planks of wood across it…any building must have the foundation of love? That’s my read. On the back of the postcard, the gallery and performance space describes its mission like this:
WE ARE AT THE CROSS ROADS OF A NEW AFRIKAN CONSCIOUSNESS. This is the place where those who want POSITIVE CHANGE come together and grow together—We are A CONSCIOUS STATION, each one teaching one. WE DISCOVER OURSELVES in loving head and heart-space where talent flourishes in A COMMUNITY OF PROSPERITY. We are CHANGING AFRIKA, OURSELVES. We are inspired by the highest hopes of our courageous ancestors! WE ARE THE LEGACY!!
There is also a logo near the spot one might place a stamp that is an image of a green Africa with the words “show more love” at the center, at the continent’s heart. Our days in Johannesburg have coincided with Nelson Mandela’s 95 birthday, and so our group’s tours of the Apartheid Museum, the streets of Soweto, even Wits University where Madiba attended law school, have been especially poignant. Each day of this trip, in fact, there has been a palpable way in which we have been standing in solidarity with all of the country as we collectively wonder how many more days our courageous elder’s heart will continue to beat, and in our grief, what will inspire us, all of us, to continue to show more love?
There has been a quality to the question and answer periods of both our student led media workshops and our film screenings here in Johannesburg–from the Afrikan Freedom Station, to Soweto’s Credo Mutwa Cultural Village, to last night’s event at the Katlehong Arts Center—that has mirrored or amplified the energy of the movement histories we’ve seen documented in the Apartheid and Hector Pieterson museums. It’s been my sense that there has been a bit less of the question, “what now?” and more testifying: “This is what I’m doing, this is what we’re doing, this is what we’re visioning.” We heard one young man describe his decision to leave his job as a policemen, because he says “I was Rasta from birth” and he had to free himself to fully embrace that identity. Another Rasta sistren shared her strong belief that Rastafarians must unify and seek political representation, a seat in parliament. Last night we heard reports of over 50 Johannesburg Rastas thrown in jail for protesting police brutality. This group participated in hunger strikes and as a result of their efforts, the food in the prison was changed to accommodate the dietary needs of Rastas and the prison’s chapel system apparently expanded to include space for a Rasta church. And so I return to the Afrikan Freedom Station statement: We Are Changing Afrika Ourselves. A few of us went back to the Freedom Station last night for an evening of live jazz and sand painting, and as I looked over at Steve Kwena Mokwena, his eyes closed, his groove suggesting he was as mesmerized by the trombone solo as I was, I thought of a quote by James Matthews I saw in the Hector Pieterson Museum. The District Six born poet, Matthews, could have easily written these lines last night watching these dazzling musicians sounding joy in the house of Freedom:
My Blackness fills me to the brim,
Like a beaker of well seasoned wine
That sends my senses reeling with pride.
Our group was reeling with pride the morning of Mandela’s birthday when we watched our fierce leader, Professor Deborah Thomas deliver her stunning guest lecture in the department of Anthropology at Witswaterstand University. As she challenged us to reconsider both the way we approach and create archival materials, she so movingly demonstrated how her own work gathering testimonies from witnesses and survivors of state violence in Jamaica embodies Mandela’s mandate that the work of freedom is about living (working/researching/teaching) in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. And as our journey together moves to a close, as our hearts burst with gratitude, we can’t help ourselves from showing her and each other and this beautiful land more and more love.
Just a stone’s throw from the white, marble statue of Queen Victoria in the center of Cape Town there is a faded monument, a circular stump really, empty and silent unless you listen close for the Ibo ghosts, Malaysian ghosts, the ghosts of Ceylon, Zanzibar and Madagascar. Earlier, inside Cape Town’s Slave Lodge Museum we heard stories of how these captured brown bodies were brought to this Cape to serve British and Dutch landowners, to build their homes, businesses, places of worship, to nurse and bathe their babies while their own children were brought to this monument, this dull and dusty auction block to be poked, prodded, felt up, and stained by so many greedy, lusty stares …bid em in, bid em in! Some of us have seen similar monuments of the trans-Atlantic slave trade’s points of disembarkation in Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, or visited slave castles in Senegal, Ghana, Benin, but most of us on this Bad Friday in Africa journey were not as aware of this Southern African point of disembarkation.
Our amazing host and tour guide, South African filmmaker, Kurt Orderson arranged a slave route tour for us with the dynamic Lucy Campbell, beginning with the Slave Lodge museum and closing with a short walk to the site of Cape Town’s auction block, a site so thoughtlessly skipped over by pedestrians racing to lunch appointments or overpriced lattes.
So when we arrive later that night to the Marcus Garvey Community Centre–an informal settlement and Rastafari community in Cape Town’s Philippi Township–there is so much to process. I’m personally aware how much I associate Garvey with black and white images of UNIA rallies in Harlem, USA, and I associate this tsunami of red-gold-and-green with Rastafarian culture of Jamaica. Now, combined with everything we’d just learned about the Afro-Asiatic masala of the slave population of Cape Town, I had to on some level reconsider Garvey’s famous cry: “Africa for the Africans” especially because later in his poem of the same title, Garvey’s lines are filled with black men doing this and black men doing that and at the Marcus Garvey Center in Philippa, we were primarily surrounded by so-called coloured Rastas with Dutch surnames quoting their Ethiopian King of King and Lord of Lords.
“Let them come home!” Ras El Fire, our MC for the screening and musical performance at the Marcus Garvey Community Centre as well as an active participant in the following day’s workshop at the University of the Western Cape preached ceaselessly about the need for Jamaican Rastas to repatriate to Africa: “If we can’t get them to Africa, the culture will die….” He lovingly introduced us to Mama B, an elder Jamaican repatriate who proudly burnt her passport once she moved to South Africa. As Ancient Vibrations ecstatically chanted, “Never get weary, yet…down in the valley for a very long time but we never get weary yet” Mama B rose from her seat, waving her Lion of Judah flag, embodying the lines like no one else could….
The University of the Western Cape actually has a student group devoted to Rastafarian culture. Their student leader, Hein Scheepers explained to me that the group, The H.I.M. society has been on campus for 10 years and is open to anyone in the Rasta community of South Africa, university enrollment is not required. Their group hosted a documentary film workshop, Bad Friday screening + Q&A, and a musical presentation of the Ancient Vibrations, followed by a generous and lovingly prepared Ital feast. Over spicy broccoli and vegan pasta, reflections were shared…our group of Jamaica and U.S. based Rastas pointed out how the discipline of the Rastas they encountered at both the Garvey Centre event and the UWC workshop had tremendously inspiring elements, such as the tradition honoring rituals of the worship ceremony and the precision and breadth of the chanting. There were elements that were also a bit more challenging regarding the strictness of appearance for women especially, and one of our male band members was questioned about having pierced ears. Today just peripherally scanning the web for articles on the Cape Town Rastafarian scene, I found a statement from a 2011 Mail and Guardian article called “The Rise and Rise of the Rastafari” by radio DJ, Judah Bush wrote, “Cape Town Rastas are definitely the most fundamentalist and divided in the world. When Rastas from other countries come here they are surprised at our lack of flexibility….” (for more see: http://mg.co.za/article/2011-10-14-the-rise-and-of-rastafari). For me it was the first time I was proselytized by a Rasta whose fervor put some of my born again Christian brothers and sisters back home to shame…for him the “right” (as in correct and only way) of “righteous” seemed more urgent than the peace and love of I-n-I that always feels so welcoming in Rasta gatherings. But his was just one voice. There were others, sisters so loving and so welcoming they literally took off their bracelets and earrings to give thanks and honor to our lead female vocalist, Queen Takiyah. The humility and generosity of these women had our Queen tearing up the whole bus ride home.
We left Cape Town for Johannesburg before dawn yesterday. Our most faithful hotel clerk, Ebrahim told us he came in two hours early for his shift so he could see us off, hug us up and deliver gifts of wooden prayer beads. And our tour bus driver, Mveni–who not only patiently and brilliantly delivered us to each event in Cape Town but often sat in and listened with deep curiosity to the documentary and palpable joy to the Nyabinghi chants–actually had something like a speech prepared for us before dropping us at the airport, thanking our group for our spirit, our sharing, our teaching. We didn’t know all of this would happen. We didn’t know this tour of film and chants and workshops would evoke such overwhelming generosity, would be drenched each day in such staggering grace and growth. We all can’t stop thanking Professors Deborah Thomas and John Jackson and composer/co-producer Junior “Gabu” Wedderburn for dreaming this up and gifting us with this profound experience…and that was just Cape Town…and now a whole new set of screenings, performances, conversations await us here in Johannesburg and Soweto. Endless thanks and praise for all our sisters and brothers in Cape Town who loved, guided, hosted, and engaged with us so sweetly.
A suitcase, a djembe, a guitarist named Micah…these are not new Jobim lyrics to “Aguas de Março” these are the things and the person that got lost between London and Cape Town. Lost and then found and we gave thanks…some of us to Jah, some to the holy spirit, some to good fortune and/or the baggage claim staff at South African airlines. Can whole people be lost and found? Our brother, Simba, said he wept watching the plane descend, meditating on his ancestors stolen from this continent so many hundreds of years ago and taken to Jamaica. He, their son, Rasta and free, now returns home with camera, reports from Coral Gardens, and plenty of cashews for the long flight.
I hear Gil Scott Heron sing, “home is where the hatred is, home is filled with pain,” and wonder if three of our brothers experienced their touch down in Cape Town a bit more like that kind of home, as they were circled by hawk-like South African airport security guards. Apparently lingering too long, trying to make sure son, nephew, brother Abba recovered his lost luggage, the guards finally took our three brothers into a small room for a not so random “search.” I did not see this happen and heard about it after the fact when Junior “Gabu” Wedderburn quietly shared the tale in part to express the tension he experienced when our Robben Island bus tour guide gave our group “big up” and “much love to Jamaica” for being one of the earliest nations to boycott South Africa…this is how the “new” South Africa greets its Jamaican brethren?
And if your home is 8 ft by 8 ft for 18 years of your 27 incarcerated, how do you transform a nation? Our beloved Madiba, will “go home” any day now, and it was excruciating to make our way past his cell yesterday and think of all those years he lost. But they were not lost. That’s really the unfathomable power of that tour–to consider the organizing, visioning, freedom dreaming taking place in that maximum security prison. In that space of loss, confinement, humiliation, blinding forced labor, sparks of a new nation were lit. And as former inmates share their stories, with each telling new spaces of healing are created within the teller and each visitor is offered testimony, evidence, living proof of what can happen when we emancipate ourselves from mental slavery.
My beautiful comrades took all of these experiences, inspiration, sorrows and wonder into our visit yesterday afternoon to Elsies Rivier Library in the Western Cape. Our Penn grad students Arjun and Mariam began the afternoon by sharing their experiences of documentary filmmaking as a research tool in a wonderful workshop with the library’s Youth Film Club, organized by Vaughan Goise. The discussion stimulated such a rich conversation about audience and power dynamics behind and in front of the camera. Creative minds were already swinging before Ancient Vibrations took the stage and got our hips and hearts swaying…never seen so many Rastas chant Nyabinghi anthems while shooting video at the same time. The fire in the room led to a dazzling experience watching the Bad Friday screening. It may just be my imagination but something about the hunger of the audience (an audience filled with many South African Rastafarians of all ages) for Rastafarian history from Jamaican voices added a kind of velocity to the experience…almost felt like the film was cut to the rhythm of the room last night. Then this led to such a deep community conversation where all emotions and dispositions were given space to wail or to weep, defeated elders, worrisome fathers, gorgeously red-gold-and-green clad sisters thanking the filmmakers and musicians for their teachings of love, and even two of our hotel reception clerks came out to the screening, testifying that they didn’t know much about Rastafari culture but they are so consistently moved by the energy of the Rastas they encounter, they had to come and find out more. Once again we see, there is loss but all is not lost if we have this breath, these generous and generative voices, these open ears, these found and fluid djembes we can make music and meaning and keep on moving.