June 27, 2007

Big Up Yourself: The Redemption of Black Space

Big Up YourselfI don't know whether it began at the launch of Marva McClean's new book of poems, Bridges to Memory at the Diaspora Vibe Gallery, and then, nurtured at the Archaeologies of Black Memory at the University of Miami, but it all came to a head at the 14th Annual Sunrise Ancestral Remembrance of the Middle Passage Ceremony at Historic Virginia Key Beach Park on Sunday. For in all these locations, there was an incident or a discussion about the negotiation of personal space by New World Africans.

Personal space differs from person to person and from culture to culture. Yet one thing is clear--we all have a right to claim that space and the right to that space is inviolable. However, from the time of the Middle Passage, the intrusion into the personal space and the treatment of "holy space," an area designated for the performance or observation of rituals or ceremonies, within the Black community has been decimated.

The dramatic incident that brought all this together in my mind happened during what I'd like to call "Witness Time" at the Remembrance ceremony. Each person in the circle had been asked by one of the organizers, Gene Tinnie, to repeat the names of beloved ancestors and to say a few words about the ceremony. There were many heartfelt declarations, but the most poignant was that of an elderly queen who was moved to speak during the ceremony.

Apparently while the ceremony was going on, one of the drummers, a young man, spat on the ground where the participants were stepping forward to give a witness. So during what was overall a soul-filling ceremony, the elderly queen stepped forward and rebuked the young man.

It was one of those uncomfortable moments when something was happening, yet you don't know what to do. On a hygienic level, the young man should have known better. But I had to ask myself, did the young man consider the circle as a "holy space" that had been blessed by a Native American priestess who had ritually cleansed all of the participants who had come to honor the memory of those Africans who had been thrown overboard at Virginia Key Beach?

I couldn't help thinking that the young man didn't know any better. Maybe it was like the incident with my son and the paint--if we don't teach our young men, how will they know? We can't expect the culture to teach them. Miami has a reputation for rudeness and spitting, so we shouldn't expect the young man to know automatically. And yet I would also have to ask, would he have spit in a church--an officially sanctioned "holy space"? Didn't he know that by the joining of hands in a circle around an altar of palm fronds and gifts for the ancestors and that by our presence, we had designated that area of the beach a "holy space?"

I could list many reasons why I think the young man did what he did. The first one being maybe he just wanted to spit. But the main reason I think goes back to the lack of respect that we have for our personal space and our collective space which has been highly contested ever since New World Africans crossed the Atlantic in the Middle Passage. From the beginning of slavery, there has been a war fought over black bodies and black space and because we have been victims in the past, we have conceded our space and our right to that space and it has had a debilitating effect on our self-esteem.

The violation/insult to personal and collective space was decimated during the Middle Passage and afterwards during the many years of institutional and legal racism. The redemption of this space has been one of the legacies of leaders such as Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. with the Civil Rights Movement's chant, "I am Somebody." Curiously, the chant was whispered during the ceremony by one of the older brothers, a survivor from the sixties, who only muttered the chant that was heard by a few of us and some hermit crabs lumbering over the sand. A variation of this chant was offered by a dreadlocked brother standing with his queen near the water when he said, "Big up yourself!"

Certainly we need to "big up" ourselves, but after so many years of having our personal and collective spaces violated, and with one third of the adult males in Florida involved in one way or another with the legal and prison systems--hardly a place for the redemption of personal space--I fear that the young man simply didn't know any better. I also fear that he may not be learning how to negotiate personal space without getting into trouble because he doesn't know the difference between assertion and aggression, and the cycle will continue.

And what about the collective spaces that we occupy? Do we think that our very presence should make that space worthy of honor and respect? In other words, now that we are free, who owns our bodies and our personal space? Do we?


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