From "Creed," by Dom Helder Cámara

I want to believe that the whole world

Is my home, the field I sow,

And that all reap what all have sown.

I will not believe that I can combat oppression out there

If I tolerate injustice here.

I want to believe that what is right

Is the same here and there

And that I will not be free

While even one human being is excluded.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

A Smiling, Crying Alarm Clock

Bittersweet doesn't even begin to describe it.
Sister Margaret "Peg" Dolan, my friend Molly's grandmother, died about a week and a half ago, and the entire LMU community from the past 30 years, or so it seemed, came to her funeral. Sacred Heart Chapel was bloated with mourning, and love. She was a counselor, a professor, head of campus ministry, and the heart of the school...I am always happy to hear that, at an extremely male institution. On a personal level, I met her once. For a few seconds. She introduced herself while her Goddaughter and I were eating dinner. I was immediately struck by how I felt nothing could crush her spirit (she was going through chemotherapy at the time), and how, to her, I was the only person in the room--though Molly said the same thing.
Sister Peg was the fourth death in Molly's family in two months. That doesn't have the effect I want it to, in simple words. Try this; imagine your grandfather, lifelong dog, aunt, and Godmother, then imagine life suddenly deciding to go on without them. Then add senior year of college to the mix, and you've got one unfair emotional roller coaster. The worst part is, I know that this sort of thing is real life. Genocide in Sudan, Rwanda, Juarez...the Holocaust...Burma...the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement. And more than that--death and suffering are items on the daily menu, for people right next door, not for the exotics or ancients miles away. Life trots along happily and then ringalingaling; the alarm clock called mortality interrupts your pleasant dream, and there is no snooze button.
I entered the murmuring Chapel a couple minutes before the funeral started, all of these dark clouds circling. I felt slightly panicked: everyone was already seated and watching me, a lone acquaintance of the superwoman, clicking along in rarely-worn black heels, all these dark clouds swarming. The panic didn't last long. I heard someone call me and turned to find Molly awaiting a hug. Despite the situation, I immediately felt better for it, and smiled as I watched her return to her reserved seat at the front of the Chapel. Next came David, a former LMU student now going through Jesuit training, who embraced me and said he'd pray for me. It was a funeral and I felt oddly loved; the dark clouds had melted away.
Chance had it (perhaps it wasn't chance at all) that I could see Molly's family from my seat in the back corner of the Chapel. I found myself watching them as they watched the casket and the proceedings, and I felt like a highly emotional fly on the wall, wanting nothing more than to fly to them. Afterwards, I crossed through a throng of well-wishers and hug-attacked Molly. We cried together for a long time. She cried to get off the roller coaster; I cried to be on it with her. I hadn't felt so utterly sad in a long time. Next I hugged her mother, whose straining eyes still managed to smile and embrace me, and her sister and father. They are all 5'10 or taller, and their collective warmth I swear envies the sun sometimes, so I felt very small, very sad, and very loved. The third emotion slowly became the strongest. Molly's dad let his hand rest on my shoulder and I put my arm around her sister's waist and we stood for a while together. I felt indescribably connected to them.
It wasn't because I'm so close to Molly that I feel they could be family. It was because grief has an inescapable beauty to it, an intense beauty I can't find anywhere else, a beauty that makes me smile every time I'm slapped in the face by mortality. The beauty is called intimacy...or friendship...or love. And it's the strongest when illuminated by death.
One of my favorite movies ends similarly:
You're capable of such beautiful dreams, and such horrible nightmares. You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone, only you're not. In all our searching, the only thing we've found that makes the emptiness bearable is each other.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Attempting to Transcend Whiteness

Damariyoh, mareeh-oh, neh-oh...
The African beat slinks through the hallway to the circular table where I am reading The Alchemy of Race and Rights, the academic diary of Patricia J. Williams, a law professor at the University of Wisconsin.
Oh, damariyoh maree-oh neh.
Ohemaah, whose name means Queen in Ashanti, sends a good morning my way with her eyes smiling behind her rose-colored glasses. I hear her brush attack her coarse hair as she sings along with the music.
It hits me. My roommate is black. Did I never notice before? Am I noticing now because of this overly-analytical, bitter, but painfully true law diary of a woman trying to shake white society by the shoulders? Am I a racist for noticing all of this?
Moments in my life when skin color have wound their way into my mind and conversation come racing back to my consciousness. A lunch with Luz Jimenez, who complimented my awareness of the issue. "I like you because you know that being white has made it easier for you." I remember an instance in a discoteca in Spain when a Moorish-Spaniard and his black Moroccan friend asked me about my ethnicity, and I told them I was Irish, Swedish, German and French. "Ah, completamente gringa," they joke.
I remember the Nigerian dance party where I was the only white girl in the room and it didn't matter at all. In fact, it was more fun.
I remember yesterday, when Ohemaah came with me to Ventura, CA's Scottish Seaside Highland Games, a haven and competition for all things Celtic. I felt like royalty, walking around with wavy strawberry-blonde hair, blue eyes and freckles. Everyone who came across us asked me, "Are you sure you're not Scottish?" But what struck me more was how much they loved both Ohemaah and I. A band called Bad Haggis played on the Celtic Rock Stage. During a transition between songs, the guitar player began singing in Ewe, Ohemaah's language, and she freaked. She told me that she introduced herself afterwards as Ghanaian and the entire band swarmed her, fascinated by her African-ness. One lady even cooed, "this might sound weird, but I love your color." Ohemaah was even adopted as an honorary member into the Armstrong clan.
Race hit me. And particularly how mine influences the way I think and see everyone else.
Yeah, I'm totally white. I feel guilty about it, the way it opens the world to me and not to others, and the way whiteness has subjected and impoverished and terrified everyone else for so long.
And then Ohemaah enters my room, in her church clothes. Golden high heels, a black blazer, a taut turtleneck. Her shoulders are pulsing to the beat of Damariyo. I no longer see color. I feel the culture she exudes and begin to hum along with her. I am no longer white; I am the Queen's friend.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Perhaps a Post Built on Stereotypes, But Worth the Risk

We wore leopard print, flowers and sequins. The women around us showed off their athletic thighs and full lips with bright colors and tight skirts. Everyone smiled a greeting and then fell into dancing like a pool of rose petals, including the confident, smooth-faced men, who seemed to have rhythm in their blood.
I was the only white person in the room, but it took me an hour to notice.
With my Ghanaian roommate Ohemaah and her Nigerian friends Jen, Lil, and Tameshi, I went to a Nigerian Independence day celebration in a crowded, rented club. We quickly made friends with some of the other women who were there and started a circle of dancing, which became a throng, which became the epicenter of the night. No one stopped or stared, everyone weaved in and out of the circles, and contented "ehhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhs" would erupt when the DJ transitioned into a traditional Nigerian or recognizable song.
I was so alive. I risk stereotyping the situation or even being racist when I say that Africans are, over all, more alive than white people. They smile with life and move with the music of nature. Last night, I'm sure they noticed the single blonde girl in the room, but so long as she felt the music like they did, there was nothing more to say. I even got a couple "ehhhhhs" from some women watching us, approving my moves. I felt so cool.
One more plus. Nigerian men. Latino men dance with style and seduction, but have always been slightly feminine in their dancing, what with the hip-swivels and spins. West African men are pure masculine power and class. It is rare for an entire room of men to be dancing, and enjoying it. This was off the charts.
We white people need to loosen up. I don't think we're capable of such rich fun.