Friday, January 18, 2013

Born free and looking for justice: What “justice” means to me

 Won't you help to sing
This songs of freedom-
'Cause all I ever have:
Redemption songs;
Redemption songs;
Redemption songs.

Bob Marley

I wish I knew how
It would feel to be free
I wish that I could break
All the chains holding me
I wish I could say
All the things that I'd like to say
Say 'em loud say 'em clear
For the whole round world to hear

Nina Simone

Here I am, born after the so-called modern Civil Rights Movement. Here I am, a part of a generation that is close (in time) to this movement for justice; but most of my living “in” the Movement is done via readings and watching documentaries. Here I am a so-called beneficiary of the Civil Rights Movement. I stand in front of a college classroom, me a Black woman, an immigrant Black woman, a Black woman only a few generations past slavery and indentured servitude, as a college professor. Here I am the mother of a teen daughter who lives in a world that tells her that there is no racism. She is told this “lie” of post-racalism because for example, she does not see the possibility of herself in older Black women as there are no Black female teachers (or males for that matter) at her school. How then do I understand justice? How does my social identity and the context within which I reside shape my understandings of justice and freedom?

March on Washington

As a child, growing up in Barbados, I was fed a steady diet of Bob Marley. To this day, my mother owns every Bob Marley record. I can fondly remember me singing along to “Get up Stand up”, and “No woman, No Cry”. I am the point where I simply hear a few opening bars of a Marley song and I can start singing. I didn’t know that Marley’s music was about social justice. As a child, I didn’t know of or fully appreciate my mother’s commitment to justice. Marley’s music was simply something that was a part of our lives. Here commitment to social justice was simply a part of our lives. Then at the age of 16 I migrated to the US to attend college. At the age of 21, while in graduate school, I had an experience that reminded me of my so-called space in society. I was walking one morning and out ran a lady yelling “Nigger, Nigger.” She was clutching her robe and dressed in her house slippers. The anger I felt after this experience, coupled with the isolation I felt in higher education in general, left me wondering if there was ever a space for me in society. My experiences in higher education exposed me to racism and injustices in a way that I had not experienced before.

The injustices I experienced challenged my understanding of freedom. However, those songs my mother poured into me and that sense of self my parents cultivated served as the foundation for my response to the injustices I experienced. I didn’t always know how to name my experiences and how I wanted to respond to them. But the lyrics of Bob Marley, among others, and the teachings of my parents helped me to see my experiences as part of what I eventually learned was structural and institutional racism, sexism, and classism.

The words of my teachers and of random strangers caused anger; but they also prompted me to dig deeper into understanding intersectionality and justice.

The legacy of Black women, known and un-known to me, served as my “drinking gourd”. What is it that Black women sing about when they sing spirituals, the blues…? What is that yearning in their voice? It is a yearning to be free.

My digging led me to the likes of Nina Simone, to the works of Audre Lorde, Zora Neal Hurston, and Langston Hughes among others. I found the writings of Black women such as the Combahee River Collective, Dorothy Roberts, Nikol Alexander-Floyd and Beverly Guy-Sheftall. These women gave me a home for my raced-gendered-classed experiences. Through these various voices I have come to define a notion of justice.

Justice involves critically analyzing how the intersection of race, class, gender and sexuality work to constrain access, life choices, and understandings of self. Justice is not only about critical assessment of these intersecting oppressive structures; it is also about defining “my” reality. Although I use the term “my” I recognize that “my” incorporates all members of my larger community—those who are not free.

My struggle for justice is an on-going process. At this stage of my life I am confronted with teaching my teen daughter about justice—social, economic, cultural and political. My challenge stems from, in part that unlike me she is being raised in a majority environment—one that espouses a notion of color-blindness. She is one of two Black girls in her class. The irony of this color-blind ideology is that racism and the racial order is often hidden in plain sight. Injustice remains unchallenged as a result of silence. There is no community available for me to ground my daughter in—a community that reaffirms her Blackness in the way that I had as a child growing up in Barbados. That is just a part of the problem. Culturally she’s inundated with notions of beauty that often render her invisible. My attempts to counter the dominant narratives she confronts is often met with silence, mis-understanding, or a type of sympathy but very little action to actually change the environment in a critically manner. 

Often I’m left singing the words of Nina Simone, “I wish I knew how to be free”. I wish that I knew how it is for my daughters, biological and non-biological, to be free. Until then there is no justice. 

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