By Stephanie Barbé Hammer
I don’t know about you but I’m in a bad mood a lot these days. I can’t go to Macy’s. I can’t go to a concert, I can’t take a bus, I can’t go to a protest. I can’t go out for dinner, breakfast, or lunch, and I can’t go to the movies or even to a friend’s house. I can’t get on an airplane and go visit my family in Los Angeles. I can’t go visit my friends in New York. I can’t even go to the library. I can’t go yell at my congressperson. I can’t go to a real-time political meeting. I can’t I can’t I can’t.
“Well,” my best friend from second grade says. “It’s better than drowning in your own fluids.”
My best friend H grew up in Beirut and now lives in Seattle. She’s a cancer survivor and she’s had a lot of ups and downs financially. She’s got perspective. She is also white, CIS gendered, straight and has had a privileged life in terms of education and opportunity. I am all those things and have had those privileges too. As I watch the protests going on around the country and the world, I am compelled to consider that I am sheltering in a house that I don’t ever have to leave, because it’s bought and paid for, and while I recently lost my adjunct job at a community college, my economic welfare doesn’t depend on it. When I walk around my predominantly white neighborhood, I may not be greeted warmly (my neighbors vary greatly in terms of their friendliness), but I certainly am not going to be threatened or shot for walking there. The police are not going to pull me over, because I look frightening or suspicious.
These thoughts remind me of something that happened to me last year.
Last December I spent the money to have my DNA analyzed. I was hoping to find some trace of Jewish ancestry, since I converted to Judaism 25 years ago.
Please! I thought, May I turn out to be just a little bit Jewish.
Nope, no indication of that. But I did find out that I apparently have 2% African DNA.
So, along with Germany, Norway, Ireland and Wales, is Nigeria, where some of my favorite authors — Ben Okri, Chris Abani, and Chimanda Ngozi Adichie — are from, and Mali — whence originate the incredible singers Amadou and Mariam and where the celebrated griot performance of story-telling (in particular the telling of the Epic of Sunjata) — flourishes. I have taught the Epic of Sunjata many times in world lit at UC Riverside, and have always loved it. But I never thought I had any connection to it other than literary.
Granted, 2% is not a lot. But it is deep connection for me to think about, given that my maternal great-grandmother was from Roanoke Virginia, which was an important center for the buying and selling of enslaved individuals in the 17th Century. What was the role of my Roanoke ancestors in this history? I want to find out. But the bigger point is that this discovery has helped me realize something that people of color and particularly Black people have known all along. If we’re all in the struggle against the COVID 19 pandemic (and we are), then we’re all in the struggle for racial justice too. There’s no way not to be in the struggle. Because we are all intimately connected to the history of racial oppression in this country (and elsewhere), whether or not we have an actual genetic connection.
As Ijeoma Oluo has noted, doing the work of racial justice if you’re a white person is unpleasant at best, and upsetting at worst. But to quote my friend H, it’s better than drowning in your own fluids. Which is what we are currently doing. Drowning in systemic racism — a toxic society that has inflicted and continues to inflict great harm on people of color, in particular Black people.
The writing featured in this issue of SHARK REEF was created and submitted before COVID 19 hit and before the fed-uprisings began in earnest, but some of the pieces here point directly to where we are today, nationally and globally. In fiction, Kendall Johnson writes about the unresolved trauma and challenge of 9/11, while Michaelsun Stonesweat Knapp reminds us — with humor, grace and an onslaught of tasty dishes — who was in the US first and what some of those folx are up to. In poetry, Kristy Webster envisions rusted swords and a resonant desert visitation that may or may not lead to salvation.
In his lyric nonfiction letter published in this issue Nick Hadikwa Mwaluko observes:
Ours is a fear with an umbilical cord stretching back centuries, across numerous lands and oceans, weaving through multiple generations amplified through compounding traumas. When you are Black and queer, your whole Being calls out White Supremacy and anything, anything that does that in this world must die and keep dying multiple times until stamped “dead enough.” To reach out, to touch another Black queer is non-conformity, is affirmation of the unspeakable, is acknowledgement of the denied, is transcendent and transformational of all betrayals.
Mwaluko exhorts readers to confront the past and the present through the active holding of paradoxes, which may be our best and only way forward:
To contain the pain with the joy. To couple spiritual faith to human horror. To live in peace during the storm. . . To manifest contradiction as an inevitable surprise. To push the original sin against Black people to the background of our Love Supreme as foreground.
Friends, I invite you to sit with this issue — which marks the 20 year anniversary of SHARK REEF – and keep your head above the water of this challenging, difficult, beautiful moment.
Copyright Hammer 2020