Last Wednesday, I literally felt like I raced time leaving the city of Tuscaloosa, AL about 45 minutes before the deadly tornado that ripped my neighborhood to shreds, destroying lives, and schools, and property along the way. I was on my way to the Birmingham airport to catch a flight out to the Black Women’s Intellectual History Conference at Columbia, an event I had been anticipating for more than 6 months. The conference gave me life and renewed my sense of purpose and community profoundly, as I knew it would. I needed to be there. And I am so glad to have been in that room with sisters whose work and presence made me make sense to myself.
But I had the profound sense, as I sat in a hotel room in Harlem, convened with smart sister intellectual-poet-activists in a room at Faculty House at Columbia, and broke bread in various locales in Morningside Heights, that in just a few days I would confront the kind of destruction that simply defies the senses. I thought about how it would feel to come back to a place where the physical landscape and the lives of people had been so violently altered, so very quickly. I thought of my students and friends. And I dreaded seeing what my neighborhood would look like.
Even anticipating all this, I left Columbia on a kind of high. The high that comes from being among a people who understand what it means to be in that kind of space together, having been brought there by a context of struggle and pain, and joy and triumph. For Black women celebrating and thinking about the lives of other Black women who have come and gone certainly have their share of struggle and pain and triumph and joy to thank for bringing us together.
I returned home to find that my apartment escaped unscathed, my broader community another story. After only two days back in T-Town, two days of repeatedly seeing massive scenes of destruction in areas so close to my own, I dreamt that the bottom of my right foot was missing. No doubt my mind’s way of trying to reconcile my own feelings that the ground upon which I stand is less sure. Seeing the utter vulnerability of buildings that appeared to be rock solid can mess with even the most self-assured person’s sense of confidence and safety.
The evening that I returned, I was in a fitful slumber, the result of my unsuccessful attempt to cope with all the destruction I’d seen on my drive home by sleeping. I was awakened by a text from a friend in NY that said simply, “Osama dead.” Quickly I scrambled to get my bearings and turned to CNN. I watched crowds erupting in the streets of D.C. and New York, and wondered to myself and to my FaceBook family about “Where all the flags came from so quickly!”
But I also watched people gather in the place where I had just been, brought there by a context of struggle and pain and joy and triumph.
I feel ambivalent as I watch folks convene in the physical spaces of their loss to celebrate the slaying of Osama Bin Laden, a slaying confirmed for us by the showing of bloody images of the compound where he was killed. And I find the macabre debates about whether to show the images of his bloodied body to be literal overkill; Black folks moreso than most ought to know that plenty of our own ancestors lie buried beneath the surface of the waters, as assuredly dead as if we had seen them go with our own two eyes.
But perhaps the celebrations are like the family reunions that happen after funerals. In the midst of great loss, there is a renewing of connection, a reminder of mortality, a clarity about just how much we need each other to survive.
That is perhaps the most profound lesson of which I was reminded during my weekend of intellectual bliss with the sister scholars. We cannot do this work, of recovering, reclaiming, and reconstructing our intellectual history alone.
We need each other to survive.
This is not only one of my favorite gospel songs. It is also the most important truth which I carry with me in this newly reconfigured homeplace, this local context of struggle and pain, joy and triumph. As we recover ourselves, reclaim what was lost, and reconstruct what has been destroyed, we need each other to survive.
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