Roots & Routes: New Renaissance in New York

I’d visited Manhattan, New York in 2004. I was an architecture major, attending a NOMAS conference with four other students. On that trip I strolled through a sliver of Central Park, saw original Romare Bearden pieces in the Guggenheim, hailed a yellow taxi in Time Square, and even window shopped at Saks Fifth Avenueon 5th Ave. Trees dawned amber and ruby foliage in the cold autumn weather.

This time I traveled in July. Trees were green. The air was hot.

Still in Manhattan, in Harlem. Across the park from Columbia. Blocks away from the Apollo.

I’d longed to visit Harlem ever since I recorded a walking historical tour on C-Span when I was in high school. A Harlem tour is synonymous with a black history tour. You see, in high school I had my own sort of renaissance. I discovered, studied, and immersed myself in black writers, political leaders, artists, and other historical figures. [No surprise that I also went natural (stopped straightening my hair) in high school too.] Harlem, therefore, was like a mecca to me.

I didn’t go with the  rosy expectations that New York was a cultural Utopia where all races mixed evenly and existed in absolute equality and harmony. My short time near Bedford Ave. in Brooklyn proved the naiveté in that.

That said, I appreciated Harlem for keeping the dream visible, deferred or not. Harlem has mortared its history in every brownstone, store front, and public sign. I’ve been other places where, with the exception of the requisite MLK thoroughfare, the city and its residents seem to distance themselves from history and especially downplay any black American presence. In those places any celebration of blackness gets you sideways looks, like “Didn’t you get the memo that race is a social construct?”

In Harlem I didn’t feel pressured to suppress the joy I get from being immersed in black history.

I’ve noticed that people are prematurely clinging to the notion of a post-racial society. Well for groups of people, like those labeled African American, whom society has taught to hate themselves, skipping the whole self-love thing could be a huge mistake. For many blacks it seems most imperative to let other races know how much we love them, yet we can’t love or express love for ourselves without feeling guilty, feeling like we’re the neo-racists. Why is that?

We need a follow through on the 60’s revolution where it seemed we had finally arrived at self-acceptance. A dream of genuine and common self-love has been deferred. I’m still waiting to see what happens.

Harlem

Here on the edge of hell

Stands Harlem–

Remembering the old lies,

The old kicks in the back,

The old “Be patient”

They told us before.

Sure, we remember.

Now when the man at the corner store

Says sugar’s gone up another two cents,

And bread one,

And there’s a new tax on cigarettes–

We remember the job we never had,

Never could get,

And can’t have now

Because we’re colored.

So we stand here

On the edge of hell

In Harlem

And look out on the world

And wonder

What we’re gonna do

In the face of what

We remember.

~ LANGSTON HUGHES

 

With love, from Sarah L. Webb

What’s in your hand?

Roots & Routes: A House in Houston

Since high school I’ve contemplated the location where I’d eventually “settle down.” Back then I thought bigger cities were better, especially big cities not in the South. Now that I’ve traveled to and lived in those big cities with the bright lights, my mindset has changed.

Houston is a big city in the South. Because it’s so close to home and so common to me, I never considered it as big, but Houston is large. It covers 8,778 square miles (larger than some states) and has a population of about 2,257,926. These numbers put Houston as the fourth largest city based on population, but because of it’s land mass, it’s not very dense. Houston, therefore doesn’t feel like other big cities such as NYC or Chicago which have higher density.

This fourth of July I was back on Interstate 10, this time going west to Houston. My cousin recently bought a house there near Pearland (which meant we also took 610 and 288). After spending most of his life in Lafayette, Louisiana his job moved him to Texas. Eventually he and his family settled down in a new home in a suburban neighborhood in Houston.

We also visited friends who lived on the other side of Houston. They relocated from Louisiana and Mississippi when, again, favorable opportunities presented themselves.

The same is true for all the people I’ve met living all over the world. With current technology, it’s easier than ever to get mobile. We move, we migrate, we immigrate, we stay, we travel, we return, we say goodbye, we say hello world! Perhaps what I really longed for in high school was not an escape to one designated locale, but mobility and lateral freedom. Since high school I’ve experienced compulsions for movement geographically, spiritually, and intellectually.

In addition to the fun with family, friends, and fabulous food, in Houston I realized the need to be flexible and open to the myriad opportunities life presents. I no longer plan to settle down, much less predetermine where. My mother says I remind her of the song my dance class performed to, “The Wanderer.” Though I’m not as promiscuous as the voice in the song, I understand where he’s coming from (or going to).  I know I’m not the only one who understands.

Sarah L. Webb

What’s in your hand?

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Roots & Routes: New Orleans and the Road Home

On my way to yet another teacher’s event I had the undeniable feeling of being at home. Something about Interstate 10 does that for me. This time it was the stretch between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The morning I left Baton Rouge, traffic flowed smoothly, lush green trees cooled the road while the sun burned gold across the sky, the waters of Lake Pontchartrain shimmered to infinity, and cypress trunks jutted to the sky. On the return trip the sky was steel gray, curtains of rain obscured the road, and lightning cracked the landscape in my rear-view mirror. That’s Louisiana.

You see, I spent the first six or so years of my conscious existence in Kenner, Louisiana, the gateway to New Orleans if you travel by plane. Our hotel was in Metairie on Veteran’s Blvd just two minutes from William’s Blvd in Kenner. My elementary school was merely a few blocks away in the Westgate subdivision. Talk about back down Memory Lane.

I felt proud of New Orleans and proud that it is still part of me, especially driving into the city and seeing the reconstruction of the Ninth Ward, and driving on streets as familiar as St. Bernard, Rampart, and Canal. I kept imagining what it would feel like to live there again, this time as an adult. What would it be like to eat at Corky’s, Tiffin Inn, or Sandro’s whenever I felt like it?

To play the jukebox at The Other Place every Wednesday afternoon? To meet tons of baby girls named Drew Bree? To see that Nigerian valet parker again?

We all have those certain cities or towns that make us smile from the inside out, that make us stand in the crux of a moment like déjà vu.

Find more songs like Black Cool at Myspace Music

A singular definition of home eludes us as humans. Dictionary.com lists over thirty, and I’m sure that only cracks the dam. There could be as many working definitions of home as there are thinking/feeling organisms on the planet.

What I’ve said here suggests that good, early childhood memories help me feel at home. The idea that absence makes the heart grow fonder may also contribute to my warm feelings about Louisiana, since I hadn’t lived here in seven years. A book I started reading while in California titled House as a Mirror for the Self: Exploring the Deeper Meaning of Home by Clare Marcus says:

“If the stages of our life and psychological development are best described as a journey, this state of reconnection with the soul is best described by the metaphor coming home. People who have spoken or written about this transformative process have often likened it to … returning from exile, returning to a place they once knew, or coming back to their true home.”

Perhaps for me it’s more than a metaphor. Perhaps for me the physical road home is also the avenue through which I reconnect with my soul.

“They” say we lose the connection with our soul or begin to lose it at birth. I suppose it’s our first experience of leaving home. At birth we experience our first trauma of being thrust into an alien place, so unexpectedly, with no way of understanding what’s happening. I guess we eventually get over it. Or do we?

Sarah L. Webb

What’s in your hand?

 

Roots & Routes: Lafayette, Louisiana

What better place to launch an online discussion of roots & routes, than Lafayette, Louisiana???

I was in Lafayette for the past three nights and two days attending a conference sponsored by the LDOE at the Cajun Dome. Why is this significant? Well, I’ll get to the content of the conference in a later post, but for the first time my route to professional development literally took me on the familiar route to my mother’s hometown, part of my roots.

This curiosity about the relationship between where we come from and where we’re headed began when I moved to the Bay Area of California to get my masters at CCA. Able to observe Louisiana and the South from that distance, I had a different scope and saw more of the whole picture. Being so far from such a foundational piece of my identity, I fixated on place, space, connection, threshold, and path both physically and existentially. Courses on relevant topics like Sites and African Diaspora (and here) only fueled the fire, especially readings by Brent Hayes Edwards on the concept of articulation. But this is the brainy twin talking.

For the past couple of days, I just enjoyed sitting in the shade of the porch, having small talk with neighbors, and waving to the folks going by on foot, bike, or car. I liked fixing a plate of salt and spice, a good old rice and gravy dish. Humid nights with mosquito bites. The metallic music of Clifton Chenier, Beau JacqueBuckwheat, and Chris Ardoin. The brown suede of fallen magnolia petals. The aged humor of aunts and the soft cheeks of little cousins.

Still, there were what I call intellectual smiles whenever I’d see French street signs like route de Evangeline.  A route with French roots. In deed, South Louisiana is a place where the culture embodies roots and routes in every syllable. Shall I say, Louisiana articulates roots and routes and gives them a flavorful diction? I shall say that, but more like this: “Aw cher! May dat’s your people, yeah guh.”

What are your roots? What are your routes? What’s in your hand?

Sarah L. Webb