Archive for October 2011

Coming Back To America (the United States of America)   1 comment

I returned to the United States last Thursday, October, 20th.  I needed to be in Washington, D.C. so my two and a half weeks in the States started there. My great friend, Paula, asked me, how it felt to be back? I really did not have an answer. It was something I had never considered. I wondered how expats feel when they go back to the country of their birth. My response was inane. Maybe I said something like it is great to see friends again, which is absolutely true. I enjoy my friends. No, more! My friends are essential to my life. I had breakfast with Cora and Bill; dinner and almost dancing with Nasly; lunch with Gene; dinner at Karen’s; and breakfast with Beatrice and Maria. I missed Brian, Karenthia and Cynthia, Ufff!!! There is never enough time.

But what I did was avoid the crux of the question. It begged for introspection. Damn! Just like Paula to make me think – and feel! The true answer is I remain very much at odds with how I feel here. And I think that is in large part the fault of the United States. In this pre-election season the rhetoric of “smaller government” and “our government’s infringement on individual liberty” is being amplified. Playing to a very real base in this country, for me, such rhetoric serves as a continual rallying cry for “States Rights.” Intricately tied to racial categorization, which we still put above a collective national consciousness, such ideological anchors consistently undermine our ability to foster an emotional connection between our country and ALL of its citizens.

Dating back to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the concept of “States Rights” serves as a racist manifesto, guaranteeing that: if a state wants to enslave its people (historically); if a state wants to give its police the authority to stop any that looks like they are in this country illegally; if a state wants to under-educate its poor African American, Spanish speaking or Native American children – they can. The philosophy means that the parts, the States, are greater than the sum of the whole, the United States of America. A philosophy that has retarded our nation’s growth! I remember when President Obama proclaimed being a citizen of the world. The outcry from representatives of the majority culture was both archaic and retarded. And that is what “States Rights” has done. It has steeped within our nation a stew of racial and political discourse that undermines the deep emotional connection I wish I felt.

My friend Cheri, came down from Pittsburgh to hang out with me for the day. We have been friends almost all of my adult life. We like to find interesting places to visit and new things to do. My life is full of great memories of places we have seen and things we have done. This time we visited the National Memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Our first time there! Tears came to my eyes. Not from pride, which I did feel, but more because of the pain that continues to ooze from my soul because in my lifetime we, the United States, needed such a drum major for social justice. As I listened to the national park service officer – a 20’s year old tall lanky white guy in uniform and shades – talk about Dr. King, I was struck by how alive he made Dr. King. He would say, Dr. King is in the Birmingham jail having been imprisoned for leading the civil rights march on Birmingham when he writes “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” We do not relate to that concept in the United States. We continue to believe that we can live separate from the world; each state separate from each other; and each individual separate from one another.  In this the 21st century, this sense of rugged individualism is juvenile, at best.  At worst, it sets us apart, above for many, preventing us from solving some of our most pressing and fundamental problems.

Our next stop was the Corcoran Art Gallery. The lobby was full of life. Corcoran students were exhibiting, and selling, their work. They were chatting, eagerly greeting all of us who stopped at their tables, telling us stories of how they got there and asking who we were. I love D.C. it is so full of life, culture, art and food; all of the things that make Saturdays with friends unforgettable. We walk up the steps and were hit by an exhibit in the rotunda entitled, Duck, Duck, Noose by Gary Simmons. Nine white hoods, resembling those worn by the Ku Klux Klan, were sitting on stools in a circle about 15 feet across from each other. The center piece for this art installation was a rope hanging from the ceiling like a noose hanging from a very large tree. It was a vivid and emotional reminder of why there was a need for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was a depressing memory of all those that died in the struggle for social justice. I was hurt. More so, I was angry. Because I cried! Again!

The question of how do I feel being back in the United States is intricately bound by how do I feel being re-immersed in a culture that is racist and has treated me and others with injustice because of our race or ethnicity. I feel the struggle. I feel the pain. I feel my friends who have made it. I feel my friends who have not. I feel the judgments. I feel the fights. I feel the losses. I feel the triumphs. I feel my soul not being in peace but on guard. Being back in the United States means putting me back in touch with that which both ties me to and separates me from this culture – the complicated and painful issue of race. My times with my friends are glorious. I so, much want them to visit me. I want to share the relief that I have found and the peace that I enjoy. For all of its problems, with regards to race and indigenous people, Colombians are Colombians. Costa Ricans are Costa Ricans. Panamanians are Panamanian. Nicaraguans are Nicaraguan. First and foremost! I am in awe of their relationship to their country. I am saddened that the same was not born and nourished in me. In the United States of America, I am African American.

Posted October 26, 2011 by Wayne in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , , ,

Almost Heaven: Manizales, Colombia   6 comments

Once I had an interview where the chancellor of a college asked me, if I could be anywhere in the world where would I be. I remember thinking what a stupid question. But since I was looking for a job, I submitted to the idiocy of the question. I replied, Manizales, Colombia.

Manizales has always been a place where I feel at peace. I like to call it “cloud city.” The views are always stunning. The mountains that surround the city, the people and the culture are all slices of heaven, as far as I am concerned. The city lies on one of the ridges of the Andean Cordillera mountain range. Manizales is the capital of Caldas, one of the smaller departments in Colombia. The city sits more than 7,000 feet above sea level, in the Cafetero, the coffee growers region, near the Nevado del Ruiz volcano. Getting there can be a little of an adventure. Though there are daily flights from both Bogota and Medellin, the weather can play havoc with the small airport there. When that happens, the airlines take you to nearby Pereria. From there they will bus you to Manizales. One can also get there by bus or car from both Medellin and Bogota. The winding curves on the drive into the city provide vistas that can take one’s breadth away. Whatever the journey, for me, it is well worth it.

Having just returned from there, it is tough to say what I like most about Manizales. It is not a big city, with just a little more than half a million people in the region. The city never gets too hot or too cold. The winter rains only serve to keep the land green and the air clean. I consider the people who live there some of the most beautiful in Colombia. There is healthiness about them. Their Spanish descendancy is evident. With neighboring pueblitos and more than ten universities, indigenous and other ethnic groups are also woven throughout the mostly homogeneous human tapestry. The people there seem to have a real value for themselves and their surroundings.

Manizales is a town that values health, wellness and relationships. It is tough to know why there are gyms in the city. Walking the streets, the faldas, inclines, gives one plenty of opportunity to get some exercise. Perhaps that is why I love Sundays in Manizales. They close the main street for about five kilometers, from the outskirts into downtown. Friends, families, couples and singles were all a part of the landscape with city buildings joining the mountains as a backdrop. People walk, bike ride, skateboard, run and play in the streets. This past Sunday there was a bike race. It is a great day for strolling, laughing, talking and just hanging out. Health care professionals were taking blood pressures and doing health care screening. Restaurants line the streets and there are food vendors selling watermelon, mango, pineapples and other fresh fruits and vegetables. Farm land is rich in this part of Colombia. I tried chontaduro for the first time. The flavor is sort of a cross between a bland pumpkin and yucca. I tried it with honey and with salt and thought not ever again. Then I read, chontaduros are almost as high in protein as an egg. That’s good, right? They also contain beta-carotene, phosphorus, Vitamin A, some B and C, calcium and iron. That’s great, right? They are also an aphrodisiac. I may have to give them one more chance.

Manizales has a very rich social life, perhaps because of the many universities. I tend to stay in, or near, Cable Plaza. It is a vibrant area full of restaurants, cafes, shopping and night life. For me it is great that Estelar Hotels recently opened a hotel in the area. One of their smaller hotels, 46 rooms, they are always reasonably priced, offering a full breakfast and an evening sandwich and salad bar. This area also has a very active live music scene, including places to hear jazz, theater and art. And you do not have to wait until the weekends to find a place open. I love to sit outside at the Café Juan Valdez, Cable Plaza, listening to students, faculty and others chat away. I have met many smiles, kind faces and had conversations with people there. Perhaps that typifies Manizales also. It is a warm and friendly place; a peaceful place for me to be, and write. Since my last visit there, in 2009, they have opened a new tram system, a new four story mall, several new apartment and office buildings, and many new restaurants.   About five minutes by cab from Cable Plaza I found, on one of the side streets, a place called Patacones and Pescado, which has the largest patacones, fried platano, which I have seen. Thin and crispy, like a giant tortilla, it was tasty in either of the two dipping sauces we were given. The fish was great, the portions large and the bill only came to about $16 for two of us, including drinks. It is easy to see why the place was popular.

Manizales, and the surrounding area, is a place where people go for healing, or just opportunities to leave the day’s stress and the world’s problems behind. The city is unbelievably clean and is surrounded by parks, nature preserves and, of course, mountains. The Barrio de Chipre, maybe a thirty minute walk from downtown Manizales, offers a mountain top view of the city and the surrounding area. The park is home to the Founders Statue and a really extreme super swing. Though not exact it is about sixty foot high by my estimate. Either way it is high. Chipre is the place where people go, especially on the weekends, to enjoy life, music and each other’s company. Manizales is also close to many thermal baths, including the Hot Springs at Thermals el Otono, Santa Rosa de Cabal, the Ruiz Hot Springs and the Otun Hot Springs. Great places to soak your cares, aches and pains away. Also close to Manizales is the Los Yarumos Ecological Park, great for hiking, cycling, climbing and watching wildlife.

One day, some friends and I were driving to Risaralda, about three hours from Manizales. We came around a bend on this mountainous two lane road. All of a sudden the view was so dramatic, I remember saying “God has made this place.” I was very happy to have not been driving that morning. We would have certainly ended up over the side of that mountain. I think though that trip sums up my feeling for Manizales. It is a place where I feel reminded that there is a God. In all of its simplicity and splendor this little town in the mountains touches my soul. No matter where my journey takes me, Manizales will always be the place where I find peace and harmony with all that God has created.

Posted October 14, 2011 by Wayne in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , ,

From Slavery to Freedom in Latin America   7 comments

When I was young, in high school, I was teased for being too African looking. They used to call me Nairobi – the capital and largest city in Kenya. I was offended and hurt. This was a time that black was not beautiful. And it was very easy to make darker skinned African Americans feel less than valued because we were not light skinned, with wavy hair and European features. Dr. W.E.B. DuBois was right when he called the color line the problem of the 20th Century. And former Secretary of State, Condolezza Rice was right when she said the United States still has problems dealing with race of a national “birth defect” that denied black Americans the opportunities given to whites at the country’s very founding. “Black Americans were a founding population,” she said. “Africans and Europeans came here and founded this country together — Europeans by choice and Africans in chains. That’s not a very pretty reality of our founding.”

We, African Americans, AfroColombians and Blacks in Costa Rica have as our common heritage the forced pollination of the Americas by Spain, England, Portugal and others supporting the slave trade. In the United States Africa’s strongest, brightest and beautiful youth labored in the tobacco, rice and cotton fields. They worked as servants and served as concubines for their masters. They forged a new nation from the occupation that displaced the Native Americans from their lands. In Costa Rica they worked the cacao farms in Matina. Their descendants joined Panamanian, Jamaican and other Caribbean laborers in building the Costa Rica’s railroad to the Atlantic. The country owes much, including becoming the world’s largest producer of bananas in 1911, to Africa. Spain used African slaves to replace the rapidly declining Native American population, who either died from the diseases the Spanish brought with them; died because they could not work the mines as vigorously as their conquerors demanded; or died in conflicts with their enslavers. Africans were forced to work in gold mines, on sugar plantations, cattle ranches, and their master’s houses. In eastern Colombia Africans manufactured textiles in commercial mills; they worked the emerald mines outside Bogota; and African laborers were the majority workforce behind the production of tobacco and cotton.

But the results of slavery seemingly have had a much more profound and continued impact on African Americans than the other members of the African Diaspora. Somehow we internalized the messages, the pain and the cruelty; forging the lashes used against us into weapons of words and worse that we use against ourselves. I have looked to the work of Dr. W.E. B. DuBois to help me understand why. His concept of the veil provides at least one explanation of the impact racism has on the psyche and health of African Americans. He describes the veil as the consistent, or perhaps best said persistent, shroud that separates Blacks and Whites. This theme runs throughout Souls of Black Folks and is not easy to encapsulate. Yet, this is the quote that sticks with me. “… the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,–an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

Going through life living this double consciousness, as Dr. DuBois calls it, can be exacting on one’s consciousness. What happened when I was called Nairobi was that I was made to feel ashamed that my dark skin and high cheek bones and broad nose were too reminiscent of a descendancy that African Americans were trying to erase. I was an every present reminder of the Negro, an identity that was filled with reminders of a cruel physical, spiritual and psychological warfare that the African American community wanted to forget. Sometimes at all costs!

To keep from being torn asunder, and prosper while living the double consciousness, many African Americans have developed a social network of family, friends and mentors. My spiritual counselor, Patty Lattanzio, calls us “anchors” to one another. We walk with each other through our life’s journey providing strength, answers, explanations, comic relief and shoulders upon which to cry when doubts and trials come to us because of our skin color. We help each other keep our balance in whatever storm we were enduring. My sister Exa, Karen, Cherri, Joe, Belle, Jimmy, Doris, Toby, Lynette, Ms. B. Renee, George, John, Cynthia, Herman, Jack, Jeanne and many others have been my anchors. I have needed them. And they have let me use our friendship and love to get me to this point.

Dr. DuBois, believe that creating greater linkages between peoples of the African Diaspora would address the problems the color line played on the advancement and health of the Negro (African Americans). And I agree. Later in my life, when I was 27, I was traveling in Europe. In Paris I met a group of young Ghanaian men who refused to believe that I was from the United States. Their words have remained with me all of these years. They said, still with doubt in their voices, if you are telling us the truth, then come to Ghana, we could take you to the village of your ancestors. The pride in their recognition was jubilant. Though I have not visited Ghana yet, that was the day my healing began.

In many ways I feel like Santiago in the Alchemist, liberating myself, learning, unlearning, detoxing and coming out from under the veil that I lived with for so long in the United States.  Here, in Costa Rica and Colombia the sense of living a double consciousness does not exist. There is no separation in the psyches of the people of African descent, and in the views of others, as to whether they are Tico (Costa Rican) or Colombian. They are not preoccupied by the ways white people see them. There is a sense that they have won that battle. They have taken what was thrown at them and survived. Now is the time to live their lives and advance themselves, their families and their country.

Pura Vida is the expression that embodies Costa Rica, loosely meaning: Live life to the fullest. Embrace your connection to God, community, your family and yourself. Celebrate the day and whatever blessings, big or small, that God has granted you. It is estimated that Colombia’s Black minority comprises 36-40% of the national population, though it is officially recognized at 26%. This means that about 11 million of the 42 million people in Colombia are considered AfroColombian. This is the second largest population of African descent in Latin America, after Brazil. I love the discussion within the exhibits at the Colombian National Museum, Bogota. Many of the historical accounts talk about being one people forged from European conquistadores who thought the indigenous peoples were less than human and left Colombia with the rich cultural influences of the world, especially Africa.

In this part of the world I feel like I am a part of the landscape responsible for the development of the world; a part of the diaspora that helped to create these cultures and economies. Perhaps this is what Dr. Dubois wanted for the Negro (African Americans). I am liberated from the double consciousness I felt in the United States. This liberation gives my consciousness space to become healthier and live life in greater balance. Pura Vida!!!

Posted October 7, 2011 by Wayne in Uncategorized

Tagged with ,

%d bloggers like this: