Saturday, March 31, 2012

My Letter to Trayvon Martin


Dear Trayvon:

I waited too long to share what’s on my heart. When I heard your cries for help and the shots, I began to sob, both for the horror you had to experience, but also my own role in the events that led to your death. The disease that affects every American, the ugliness of racism and privilege had just taken your precious life. Through the tears I was forced to look within.

Many would say, Jessica, you didn’t pull that trigger, you’re innocent. Goodness, I live up north and you lived your all too short life way down in Florida. Such an easy copout, but you and I both know better don’t we? It’s never easy to look beyond the excuses.

Now for sake of background, so you can know me a bit better, I’m a student of many things, including history. Over the past few years I’ve set out to try as best I can to understand this divide that hurts all of us. I studied slavery, and then Jim Crow, and then the war on drugs and the use of incarceration to ensure a permanent underclass of low wage earners. I studied the lies those of us who are white tell ourselves to perpetuate slavery by another name. I’ve taken every opportunity to hear the story from the African American perspective. Myself growing up in Jim Crow America, heaven knows I’ve heard enough of the other side of the story. I did play a bit role in the civil rights protests of the sixties, but hardly sufficient.

Trayvon, in studying my own genealogy, to my horror, I learned my own ancestors participated actively in the buying, trading, and selling of human beings. I tried to imagine how anyone could justify in their minds and before their God such actions. I’ve got my own hunch. Greed for wealth and power leads many to provide their own justifications. They sew discord for their own advantage to the intellectually weak who justify their own shortcomings through the excuses of race. But in my moral sense of the universe, none of their excuses held water. Among my pet peeves, up near the top are dishonesty, lack of intellectual curiosity, and the moral weakness to the facts that lie in front of us for any who would see. The truth is, I’m not accountable for the actions of Grandfathers dating all the way to the 1660’s in America. However I am completely responsible for my own actions dating back to the day I was born.

Trayvon, as a small child one day in a Kreske store in Tyler, Texas, I wandered away from my mother to get a drink from the water fountain while she ordered us food from the lunch counter. Just as I took my first sips of refreshing water, a store employee pulled me away. “Where’s your mother?” he demanded. “Don’t you know you could catch a disease drinking at this fountain?” I pointed her way and he dragged me over to her and proceeded to lecture her. Now THAT was a mistake, because Momma bless her heart did not tolerate fools. She told him to mind his own &(^) business and leave me alone. Then momma explained to me how there were separate water fountains for white and black people. I accepted it because it came from Momma, but I didn’t understand it. I still don’t. Did black people carry strange diseases the rest of us didn’t? No logic to that at all. So that was how it was. A separate entrance at the theater, segregated schools, a separate part of town where black people lived, and the only connection between us was through that southern tradition of hiring a maid to come in once a week. Terribly unpaid, but in that environment nothing else was available.

Trayvon, growing up in that small minded hateful world, I heard the stories of the lynching of black men and women for “stepping out of line.” Places like Grand Saline and Vidor proudly claimed that no black people were there after dusk. I saw the deference walking down the street, how people spoke to African Americans as if they were perpetually children and yet as a child I was referred to as someone older. I’ve often wondered, had the civil rights movement not taken place, would I have simply acquiesced to the system as it was? I can’t answer that question, because that’s not what happened.

I once heard a story that suggested that if I took another prisoner and I handcuffed them to my wrist, were we not both really imprisoned? I see our separation in much the same way. As I watched the actions of the great Civil Rights leaders through high school, it led me to question that garbage poured into my head since early childhood. Why are we living separate lives? Why are they using clubs and cattle prods against people peacefully asking for their basic liberties? I never bought into the inferiority argument. Still most of this did not, I thought, affect me. I disagree with that premise now, but that is where I was then. I was sympathetic, but not really committed to the struggle.

It wasn’t until college that I actually was in an environment where African Americans and White folks intermingled. One after another, the myths began to vaporize, even myths I did not realize that lingered within. I remember attending a campus presentation regarding black power. So many were threatened by those words, perhaps linking into arcane fears of a insurrection going back to John Brown. It was in college where I participated in a civil rights protest at an establishment that persisted in maintaining separate facilities. But these were the days of the 60’s revolution and hippies and getting out of Vietnam. We felt of course the Black Movement would join us, but of course on our terms. I wasn’t too aware of white privilege in those days.

It was many more years before I had another awakening. I worked for an agency where most of the leadership was African American, as well as a pretty even divide among employees between African American, Hispanic, and White. In the early 1990’s as I have mentioned in earlier posts, I changed gender from male to female on my job. All of a sudden, I began to hit roadblocks. I had cleared it all with personnel, but my boss, a man from North Vietnam, was not too happy about it. A white woman, our clerk, began sabotaging my work. If I complained, I was blamed for “not taking care of it,” or “ not being a team player.” Gender change was not protected under EEOC and I was frustrated.

It was then something incredibly wonderful happened. In a workplace dominated by African American women, one such co-worker approached me. “Jessi, I see what they’re doing. I don’t understand your journey, but I damn sure recognize discrimination when I see it. “ She rallied the other African American women in the workplace, and with their support, we approached the supervisor and got him to do what was his job to begin with. In our conversations together, she opened my eyes to so much. She helped me become aware of my own privilege by virtue of the color of my skin. It was as if a veil had been lifted, and I could see the world in an entirely different way.

Trayvon, your death showed one thing abundantly for any with a speck of self -honesty. The demon of privilege is still with those of us who are White. I literally can look out my window in my mixed neighborhood in Minneapolis and see privilege and its costs right before my eyes. Law enforcement is not practiced equally. I see who gets stopped and questioned. I see who gets cuffed and how they are treated. Which brings me to the point of this letter. How am I responsible? I’m responsible when I’m silent. My debt to this world is to name it when I see it, loudly and strongly. Recently in church, the pastor asked, WWLD. What Would Love Do? The privilege is a reality in my life. It’s why I don’t fear walking down the street wearing a hoodie and yet you lost your life for it. Do I use that privilege through love? What am I doing to bring true equality into this world? What is my role in bringing a world where no one group carries privilege over another?

I don’t have all the answers, but I promise I’m looking Trayvon. I’m calling it when I see it loud and strong. My gift is the written word, and a great place to speak from a place of love. This divide over a lifetime has cost me countless friendships that could not have been. Divided communities are not healthy communities I think. So many lives have been lost, so many others traumatized. Like so many other forms of privilege, it’s a sin that has remained unnamed. I’m going to name it when I see it, talk to other white people about privilege, and use my life as a voice of healing. I can’t bring you back Trayvon, but I can sure work to be sure you didn’t die in vain.

Oh one final word and I’ll be done. I’m so impressed by your Momma and Dad, and how so many have rallied to your cause. It is said that a person is judged by the love they leave behind. By that measure, as we say in East Texas, “You done good!” It’s our job now to make the world a better place on account of your presence.

Monday, March 26, 2012

In the Shadows

95.08.01 Skip loves beach

A few years ago, I wrote this and an abbreviated version was used as a reading for a church service on the shadows of our lives as voiced by the poets and bards of our community. This week our pastor spoke about the intersection between sorrow/pain and growth/blessing. So I am sharing that piece as a response via blog today.


The shadow of fear is faced fully, and into the darkness we step, not knowing where the journey will lead. If fortunate, the darkness is transcended and on the other side, the light of love and the self which is true. If well done, at the end of it all, a contentment in that realization itself. In one poem I wrote:

And then that day comes, quietly we scream.
We have seen the vision of coming death’s door
Life lived, with unfulfilled dreams
Dark day is here, we are no more.

And yet a blessing indeed for love and soul
Love living on, in mystery so sublime
And our memory becomes part of the whole
Even as finite body recycles into the Divine.

And if we see Earth as living and being
And if we accept we are all part of whole
In all of creation we are seeing
Nothing lost, and love rooted at heart of soul.

Within life itself though, within the life span itself, it seems we undergo many deaths, births, and resurrections, or so it has been for me. As if life were a continual re-imagining of the authentic self that lies within. As I speak here of the many tragedies and the passages that lead to the ME that is today, in my search for the ever elusive light that shines brightly, fades, hides behind the clouds of life, and then reappears again; within the shadows of existence reaching out and expanding exactly the way so much of nature does… as I speak of these things, I am ever mindful that within darkness came the source that enriches and accentuates the beauty of direct sunlight upon the authentic soul. And the mystery, the countless synchronistic moments that led to the next moments almost as if by design pulling me along to an ongoing, ever changing journey of self truth. All along the way are choices to be made, and each path represents a different outcome. In my alcoholism for example, that moment of clarity demanding a decision, sobriety being the choice for life in my case. Avoiding always avoiding labels and defining restrictions on that mystery, but nevertheless feeling a sense of awe at the non-definable presence along the way.

In such a lifespan are those moments, sometimes long moments that become days, weeks, months even years, that may require a journey beyond the normal limits we believe possible, and into darkness; where each step is an act of faith for which there are no guarantees, yet our realities demand the choices be made. And they are important choices. Choices made between life or death, joy or sorrow, love or the safety of acceptability. And as if that were not sufficient a challenge, society filled with those who want to make those choices for us without the consequence of living the decision. Today I am addressing such a time, a piece only of a life journey.

I wrote:

“The struggle is over, for the fish has
Surrendered to the bottom feeders;
Its breathless form a delight to those
Who feverishly rip it apart for its peace.
A piece of peace, for the strongest and most ruthless,
Swarming fury, then emptiness....
They have found what the fish has already known.
Bones sink to the ocean floor, some wash ashore
And peace silently waits
To be discovered once more.”

This is from a poem I wrote some years ago, during darkness like I had never known before. In still another writing, feeling the intense angst of separation from everything meaningful to me, and yet another analogy to the fish, I wrote the following:

“I offer love yet am I reviled..
My pain I offered to be met with more
My heart I presented, only to be devoured
In a swarming tumultuous feeding frenzy
For the sharks, left with nothing save a few bones
Completely devoured...the flesh of life.

So come to me Death! I welcome thee my friend!
COME TO ME...Waiting for thee
Come to this soul with passion spent
Come to me, my heart rent..
Let this end.”

People close to me were afraid that I was becoming suicidal perhaps. But it was not that after all. But, at that moment, in my darkness, I could not see my way to find the inspiration for life to continue, sensing that death was drawing ever more closely as a natural resolution to my desolation and devastation. No, it was not that I desired death, well maybe perhaps a little, but rather there was the sense of separation from the very light others take so for granted.

At what point was it that this immersion into the dark recesses of spirit occurred? I had always felt a great deal of separation as a gay and transgender person in the south. Growing up in the fifties and early sixties in East Texas, queer was no easy thing to be. Worse, I could not melt into the crowds so to speak. I was identifiable as somehow different and therefore an open target. Still I survived, and eventually even thrived. I found a person to share my life with, even as I lost virtually all of my family because of my transition from male to female. I had managed not to lose my job even if I faced a great deal of harassment on a regular basis in that workplace for my “difference”. But I had friends, and a lover who loved me selflessly and totally.

There's the proverbial final straw, the one that simply makes life too much to deal with. In dealing with crisis of this sort, working on one or two problems helps make life more manageable. Understanding this at an intellectual level is useful, up to a point. Many times before, this knowledge had helped me transcend difficult times, like when my friends were dying during the early days of HIV or coping with bar raids or police brutality or the deaths of my parents.

Then came my True Darkness, what Theresa of Avila or John of the Cross might have called the Dark Night of the Soul. Here it was that my encounter truly began, where no intervention was possible, my choices to be made and the mystery present in my search not just for light but survival. My one true love became ill suddenly and died soon after. I held my soul companion in my arms helpless to the ravages of viral encephalitis and then he was gone. Having already lost much of my family who rejected me for my queerness, I was so very alone. I was but a shell, functioning to live, but little more. Still, this sort of thing happens after all and it wouldn't be easy, but I could and would survive.

Less than a month later, I am preparing to walk patrol in our gay ghetto as part of a volunteer organization to prevent gay bashings. My friend Dee and I are laughing about something that happened to her a few days earlier. Suddenly without warning she lets out a gasp and collapses to the floor. A friend applies cpr, but even as I hold her in my arms, reaching for her pulse and telling her that I love her, they are the last words she will ever hear and the second person in a month near and dear to me dies in my arms.

Quietly I sit at the foot of the stairs, rocking back and forth, softly sobbing. The ambulance came and I rode with her to the hospital for the doctors to state the obvious. In the events of these days, I had met head on the full darkness of the human condition. I had stepped fully into the darkness, with no certainty of where my journey was leading, but inside somewhere a hope that I could not see but was there nonetheless. .
The dream was there; something I could not imagine nor define, hidden by the veil of the darkness of circumstance. This was a passage that was singularly mine, and yet I needed help for the journey had taken me to a place beyond any pain I ever thought I could endure. I stepped into darkness, powerless and vulnerable.
And so it was, making quiet choices one at a time, placing one foot in front of the other even when I wanted to simply go away, and with countless people slipping into and out of my life weaving webs of support, webs of love to help me step beyond all of this, and slowly healing began. We hear so very often of the interconnected web of life. It's very real to this writer. Were it not for all the small gifts of loving kindness along the way, I would not have had the strength to prevail. Having known such love as I had known and then seeing it lost, left me more mature in terms of not only others, but for myself. Like the plant that grows in the fertile soil bathed in the loving light of the sun, I prospered from the exposure to light even more than ever for having known true darkness.

There will be more times of shadow in this life, but there is a certainty of light that cannot be taken away. My awe of the mystery remains always, and the journey amidst the shadows has become one of excitement and anticipation. At the age of 56, well 57 this week, I am on the slope towards that final transition to another unknown. But I have today, and it is that day, THIS day, I celebrate. Oh my differences are still there and they are significant, and no matter what I do or how I do it, some will find fault and even wish that I would disappear forever. Hate and fear does that to people. And so I would finish with this excerpt from another poem I wrote entitled trans-separations:

But life goes on and love goes on and hate and fear go on also.
To all who hope that my kind will disappear, and those who revel in my difference;
What we have not in common rather than what we do, I smile sweetly, and offer this simple reality:
I can only be me and you can only be you and we can be we or never
But my truth will remain, agree or complain, and from my truth you cannot sever
For in truth to self I have found truth in others and the same for love it is clear,
To leave behind that which is ME would leave ME with nothing but fear.

My soul lives, and will beyond death and it is a beautiful soul prepared to love, prepared to live, prepared to dance.
If you dance with me, then we dance together, but if you cannot, I shall dance alone.

July 3, 2004