escape: “the dirty life” by kristin kimball, reflections part 3 of 3

In my final reflection post about The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love by Kristin Kimball I find myself eager to discuss Kimball’s contemplation on the escape of horses, and the larger concept of escape in general.

“I’ve had more than one opportunity to wonder…what it feels like to be a horse running away. I know there is fear, but I also think there’s a certain joy, or if not joy then exhilaration, abandon. The broke horse is always poised between his instincts and his training, and running is giving in to the instinct.” 

Commitment is scary, be it in the context of a relationship or a job or a lifestyle or, in the case of The Dirty Life, all three at once. There is a power to nesting and rooting and grounding. Today you can read Kristin Kimball’s blog about Essex Farm and see the amazing work that is being done there as a result of committing to finding stability amidst the chaos of running a farm.

However, I am also interested in this concept of abandon and exhilaration. The tension between instincts and training. After spending so many years trying to be “good” and “do the right thing” and “not get in trouble” I often feel that my instincts are more trustworthy than my training. And I wonder if following my instincts, and abandoning my “training” (in the broad sense of that word) I can experience joy and exhilaration, and from that place, discover my own version of grounding and rooting myself into a life that feels meaningful. I think society has things mixed up and backwards most of the time, and this passage makes me ponder if escape can be what brings us home.

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strait of gibraltar

tomorrow i will cross the border.

we all began there

somewhere

human beings

Became.

slavery became there

people

flesh and bones

stolen

taken

violated.

today

people journey north

from Mali, Algeria

across the desert

–for forty years?

they make it to the border

of Morocco

and with luck

they cross

with luck

they catch a boat

with luck

they don’t sink

with luck

they live a life in europe

of racism

prejudice

ignorance

violence

with luck?

i am packing

and in my backpack

is Frederick Douglass

Audre Lorde

Angela Davis

Martin and Toni.

i travel with a heavy heart

knowing how easy my journey will be

i travel

in return

to a continent i know

i once lived on

generations back

my ancestors

all of our ancestors

were once there.

i travel with a Jewish star

metaphorically tattooed on my arm

to a Muslim country

while Israel and Palestine

play with bombs.

i travel as a spiritual seeker

starving for religion

ritual

of any form.

but also

i travel afraid

of what I represent

my white face

my hebrew name.

we all began there

but i don’t have the memories

i didn’t suffer there.

tomorrow i will cross

the border

set foot on a continent

the skin of these feet

has never caressed

and i will close my eyes

and ask for forgiveness

and ask for ritual

and open my eyes.

cultural appropriation: the importance of saying “i messed up”

I was sitting at work (at a local independent bookstore) and noticed a group of four college-aged people pointing and laughing at my book on display. I watched as I heard one say, “that’s just wrong.” And I cringed because I agreed with them. The cover of my book alone could be the parody cover of a book about cultural appropriation. A white girl wearing Indian clothing surrounded by dark-skinned Indian boys and a subtitle: “The Memoir of an American Teen Who Dared to Be Different.” More like the story of a white girl of privilege who had the opportunity handed to her by her parents to live abroad during high school.

Still hours later, I feel a sinking feeling in my stomach. I have often been the person to point out books, movies, posters, advertisements, etc. that are incredibly racially (or otherwise) problematic. If I had never seen the book before I probably would have had a similar response as the visitors in the bookstore today.

But I have seen the book before. I wrote that book. I wrote that book one year before I learned the term “white privilege” and devoted myself to educating myself as much as possible about racism, global and national white supremacy, and my own privilege.

Do I feel shame that the book is mine? Yes. Do I think it is important for white folks to acknowledge that the things they did in their “past lives” (before “waking up” to unpacking their own white privilege) and to be open about it–yes. We can’t take back what we did or who we were. We can use those experiences to push other white folks to wake up. My reflections about my own writing almost a decade ago can be painful, but they can also show how much my thinking and consciousness have changed. And is that not what needs to happen for white folks to finally get on board with fighting racism and oppression? A shift in consciousness? I would say yes. I would also say yes to documenting and sharing our missteps along the way. As a writer, I will always try to speak my truth. But my truth changes. At the time when I wrote the book, I knew what I knew. I did my best. Now I know I can do better. I think the urge for white folks (especially those with class privilege as well) to try to pretend that we are and always were perfect anti-racist activists or allies or however you identify–I think that is not only is impossible, but it is completely unproductive.

About an hour after the college students left the bookstore, a young teenager walked in and picked my book up off the shelf and when her dad came in behind her she said to him, “Dad, someone wrote this when they were fourteen! Maybe I could write a book!”

I couldn’t help but smile. When we are young we don’t know everything there is to know about injustice, especially coming from white, privileged backgrounds. But if we practice finding out voices early, then hopefully we will “wake up,” and when we do, we will be practiced at using our voices in the medium that feels most comfortable. I hope that teenager goes home and starts writing. I hope it serves her now, and I hope it serves her ten years from now, when she realizes she thinks completely differently then she did when she was younger.

Here’s to being honest as much as possible. As a writer. As an activist. As a person.

“africa doesn’t need a savior. america needs a savior.” + reflections on my time in india

Some very important points are made in this NYTimes Op-Doc, An African’s Message for America, featuring a Kenyan activist, Boniface Mwangi, discussing with high school and college students the impulse to volunteer abroad, especially in India, Africa, and the Middle East, instead of investing in local communities back home. Watching the film led me to reflect on my experience living with my parents in a boys’ orphanage in India when I was fourteen. I strongly recommend you watch the op-doc by Cassandra Herrman (only six and a half minutes.) First I will share some of the quotes I found especially important. Then my personal reflections about my time in India follow below the quotes.

Boniface Mwangi: “I can’t hold myself back when there’s injustice. I can’t.”

Duke University Student: “There is a clear sense of glorification and there’s a sense of this faux-heroism and then I’m here doing very similar work and people aren’t as excited by it.”

Boniface Mwangi: There’s a quote, it’s a Nigerian quote. ‘Until the lion has it’s own storytellers, the hunter will always be glorified.’ That’s what we need in Africa, we need the people who live in Africa to tell their own stories.”

Student: “The problem is how you frame the issue. You’re not going there to save anybody. You’re going there to save yourself….these experiences played a part in them getting a job. So they are the people who benefit, it’s not Africans.” 

Boniface Mwangi: “As you try to save the world, you’re neglecting the issues at home….If you abroad you think America is all rosy and beautiful and things work. And cops do their job. And then you come here and realize that cops lock up innocent people. You come here and realize that cops discriminate against people of color. They shoot them. They arrest them.”

Boniface Mwangi: “I think that Africa doesn’t need a savior. America needs a savior.”

*     *     *

When I was fourteen years old I lived with my parents in a boys’ orphanage and Hindu ashram in Varanasi, India, for nine months. That was in 2006. In high school and college when I began studying critical race theory and racial justice politics, I felt a great deal of shame about this experience. That we did something wrong by going.

I can’t speak for my parents, but it is my understanding that their intention was never to go there and save the orphans or the people of Varanasi. They were seeking a spiritual experience with their spiritual teacher in the most historically spiritual place of his lineage. They knew they were going for themselves, and that was okay. They also were going for me, because as parents they knew it would be a profoundly life-changing experience for a young teenager to have, which of course it was.

I remember watching the children of the orphanage get attached to our family and other westerners who visited temporarily, only to see them leave, and I knew it was unsustainable. I wanted to be absolutely involved in the children’s daily lives for ME, because it made me feel more alive, and it gave me the feeling of a big family and of siblings that I didn’t have growing up. But that wasn’t what was best for the children. Since our visit many changes have occurred in that place, and it is now run much more by people who live in India permanently, and there are clear boundaries set for western visitors.

I wrote a book about my experiences during that year, titled The Year of a Thousand Colors (for sale locally at Booklink Booksellers in Northampton, MA, and also on Amazon.com here) and I have experienced a lot of shame about the book. Not only because I wrote it when I was fourteen and therefore I have grown a great deal as a writer since then, but also because it is clear evidence of what some might call a selfish thing that we did.

And yet, that experience led me to return to the United States, begin volunteering at a domestic violence shelter when I was sixteen, join racial justice movements, become a radical activist and community organizer….

I do think travel changes us. Being white, upper-middle-class, my eyes were opened by my experience in India. I came back home desperate to uncover where there was injustice in my local community. Of course you don’t have to go to India (or even leave your town or city, most likely) to experience this eye-opening if you are from a privileged background. But because white supremacy and segregation and gentrification and so many other things, injustice is often (intentionally) kept hidden from those growing up steeped in privilege.

I can’t change my story. And I also can’t suggest that people, especially young people, don’t travel, because the cliche is most certainly true–travel opens one’s eyes to the realities of their homelands. That said, I think the point this Op-Doc makes about intention is very important. If you are traveling to a place you believe has less than you, FIRST learn about those in your local communities that have less. Then spend a great deal of time interrogating what “less” means. Less money? Less infrastructure? Less safety from police and state violence? How do you define “having” and “wealth.” Very important to think about before going abroad. (And this self-interrogation will likely change how you see home, too). And finally, know why you are going. You are going for yourself. And if that is what you need to do in your life journey (as it was in my family’s when we went to India) then it is okay. But be authentic. And when you come home, don’t pretend injustice isn’t present here. Don’t be a savior abroad, but be careful how you are a savior here. How the “faux-glorification” spoken about in the Op-Doc exists in U.S., too, for young people from privileged backgrounds who work in “community service” or “underprivileged communities” (I use quotes here because they are heavily racially coded terms and extremely problematic).

Perhaps someday I will write a second edition of my book with a deep reflection on what it means to live abroad, and what I have learned about the experience since then. For now what I can say is that without a doubt, the people I encountered in Varanasi saved me, and led me to the path I am on today. I did not save them. Thank you Mr. Mwangi for your work and for forcing viewers to ask themselves hard questions. The hardest questions lead us to the most important work.