While reading my VONA girl’s piece (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/vanessa-martir/remembering-brooklyn_b_6567644.html) I started reflecting on the changes to the most diverse zip code in the country. My neighborhood!
l live on Beacon Hill in South Seattle. For a while I’ve joked that I can’t wait for gentrification to make it here so we can get car2go, a bus that run every 10 minutes like it does in the renamed neighborhood up the street and a cup of coffee while I sit in a cafe.
Now that gentrification is getting closer, I feel like a Black Paul Revere, yelling, “The British are coming.” Just so we are clear, I am talking about culture, not race. For the 11 years I have lived on south Beacon Hill, the white, Black, Vietnamese, Chinese, Latino and East African neighbors greet each other on the streets. Our smiles are one language. Our neighborhood is Seattle’s diversity! Over the last few years it has been touted as the most diverse in the nation. REPRESENT 98118 we say sporting bumper stickers and T-shirts! Famed writer, Nancy Rawles led a project to celebrate who we are. The total number of languages spoken here gives us census rating clout.
Behind it, few know that this western refuge of the United States holds the lines of prejudice and systemic racism that carved inequality into the fabric of this land. Called RED LINING it is a root in our current disenfranchisement and wonderful diversity. Our neighborhood was the only place non-whites were allowed to live because of the RESTRICTIVE HOUSING COVENANTS (http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/segregated.htm) in Seattle that blocked our access to cleaner air, parks and interracial habitat.
Now that more people are leaving the newly unaffordable neighborhoods that were historically segregated by white supremacists, people act like they have been forced to move into the neighborhood that is the last affordable refuge. Now fewer conversations take place at the bus stop. Fewer hellos and nods that Black people offer each other to say, “yes, I see you in a world where we are made invisible.” In fact, many of our neighbors who speak ENGLISH ONLY are reticent even when greeted with the word “hello.” There silent response and averted eyes seems so strange in a neighborhood of nods that are understood despite language barriers.
The cost of latte is too high when it means the culture of our souls disappears in the foam.
Laying on the ground last night, I looked up at the star above Macy’s, a replica of the invisible. We could see no stars except that one above us in the Seattle sky.
Tears streamed onto the wet asphalt, as we lay in the intersection, chanting I can’t breathe, until we stopped.
I write about intersections. Laying face up with a hundred or so people at the intersection of 4th and Pine, I felt a crushing, I felt it again, but it was not in my chest, though I thought, about Eric Garner’s last moments, imagined others, the crushing was in my heart/mind. Is that the same as spirit? I can’t breathe. Saying those words over and over again, imagining, knowing it did not matter…does not matter to the system that crushes us was not a new feeling. It was the feeling I had last week…even before Ferguson. I had it when I read about a “victory” for the Environmental Justice movement.
The image of the Chevron refinery in Richmond, CA triggered a despair that I have not been able to overcome. It took me back to Sunday visits to my Aunt D.’s house across the street from the Arco refinery in Philadelphia. The image clutched my chest and my childhood in its’ acrid grimy fist and my tears and sobbing began before I could suck it back in and make it stop. I had to make it stop. I was on deadline. I was writing something that I thought would “save the world.” I am a child of the generation that was taught we could do that. It was not a grand idea. It was possible. I was raised to believe it was possible. So, I have worked for it these days of my life. But, in the moment that I saw that photo, it stopped being possible. My mind/spirit was crushed like a windpipe. I thought of my cousin who has 4th stage cancer , her sister who died of lung cancer just two years ago, before she turned 50, their brother who died with his head in refrigerator trying to get a cool breath because he could not afford a new asthma inhaler, their father, Cherokee, who died of heart disease which is related to the air we breathe.
It was the “victory” that accompanied the image that devastated my belief in “saving the world.” Money was the victory. A portion of the money collected from the polluter. Although it was acknowledged to be “woefully” little, it was a victory. Can money bring back the dead? Can it dry the tears of my 92 year old aunt or her 94 year old sister who watched her children die when they were in their 30’s and 40’s?
Violence has more than one fist. Brutality is cumulative. I know everyday that my life is shortened by the pain I feel because of racism. They call it stress. They can measure it as stress. Quantify the result of too much cortisol. The constant fight or flight, we live with. HANDS UP, DON’T SHOOT. On a cold day, keep your hands out of your pockets.
I can’t breathe. I surface like the Orcas, trying to get a breath. Like my cousin, trying to get a breath. I can’t breathe, my spirit is suffocating. A pregnant Orca from the endangered Southern Resident pod was found dead. Only 77 non-human beings on the endangered species list of these Southern “Killer” Whales.
I see the connection. We are dying in plain sight. We are being killed by corruption. We know our lives matter. We have families. They are threatened by extinction. I can’t breathe. I ask R U An Endangered Species?™ Find Out.
The Orion magazine magazine article is my most recent act of using storytelling for social change. it is part of my work as the lead artist for Urban Wilderness Project, the organization I founded. As an environmental educator and social justice activist, I see the connections between seeming disparate issues. It is also because I live my life in this margin.
Using techniques from Theatre of the Oppressed to magnify our community conversation on April 9, 2009 at the Pritchard Beach Bathhouse in Seattle I launched my first Does Homophobia Have a Carbon Count interactive arts action! With high school students that I engaged in storytelling and Mimi Allen, a fellow poet/activist I created a living theater exploring the connection between homophobic harassment and carbon emissions.
I use stories to create social change. I use stories as shields as bulwarks as life vests. I come from the Griot tradition of storytelling and the tradition of witness. These acts of telling are the necessary beginnings to social change.
The African-American community holds onto homophobia, as though it were a communion wafer. As though homophobic cruelty makes you sanctified.
“God is Love and Love is for everyone” ~ Pastor Gwen Hall
Orion Magazine has a news department called Lay of the Land. I am thrilled to be a part of it! My essay, ” At Risk” appears in the new issue! Protecting people and our habitat gives us much to do!
“The “at-risk” label is different for youth than it is for salmon.”
When we stop defining ourselves as other than nature, we will change our priorities and protect ourselves. Check out my article and stay tuned for the next community conversation hosted by Urban Wilderness Project!
Your Body is a Body of Water by Jourdan Keith — YES! Magazine
Nov 14, 2012 … A storyteller asks what you’d do if you knew your body was part of the water web.
You are a body of water.
If you knew this, would you protect yourself?
The water in your body is part of the water cycle and connected to every other body of water.
If you knew this, would you want to protect all the bodies of water on the planet?
I would ask my father this, if he were still alive, if his internal environment had not been polluted by the tributaries of toxins that flowed into his six-foot frame.
Standing in his hospital room, he handed me a note the doctor gave him, a small piece of white paper with the risk factors for his cancer. It was a checklist: saccharin in the products he used because he was a diabetic, asbestos in his childhood home and workplace, the cigarettes he’d quit smoking decades earlier, and the chlorinated tap water he drank for over 40 years. Looking up at him I said, “Well, you didn’t miss a beat.”
I am honored that Kathleen selected this poem which came to life at Hedgebrook. My heart broke when I wrote it and continues to break each time I read it. I feel that I was shown a world and that this really did happen. I know, by the pain in my throat that it did.
In honor of the untold stories, the lives lost and the bigotry faced –those who were gunned down on bridges like bull’s-eyes at an arcade. Thank you Kathleen.