From Elen Alawom's Women and Magic Exhibit
Because it takes a whole month to prepare for the day of the dead. Because some of us have to create eclectic Sunday morning rituals to hear our own truth. Because I want you to have this for when you need it. This podcast is based on letters from my black feminist ancestors and features music from Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Sweet Honey in the Rock and more. For more about the “In Your Hands” project see below.
I hope this piece grounds you and reminds you where you are from. You can save it for Sunday or you can listen right now.
in your hands podcast
You can also see video of the In Your Hands Project at Beloved the Mangos with Chili Day of the Dead celebration on November 7th in the San Francisco Bay Area and participate in an installation at the conference of Ford Fellows in Newport Beach California this coming weekend!
for the full letters, see below
Kiss the corners of your face for me. Curlicue the edges of your hair. Your heart is a place for writing the word yes, and you will say no outloud for yourself and this planet when you must.
I will be the bravery, okay let’s be real, the righteous outrage, of waking up and bringing a whole bunch of sleeping mf’s with you.
It’s the littlest ones that overflow with defiance, because we have to. We fit into the cracks this world makes on the bodies and land of the silenced and it is that intimacy, filling, rubbing up against oppression, feeling the jagged spaces with our own constricted breathing, imprint of limitations on our lungs, that makes us scream.
Audre told you. Your anger is not an atomic bomb. The atomic bomb is an atomic bomb. Your voice is the bell of our spirits in the world, clanging rememberance of what whole feels like and what it would look like if we, the planet, really got our stuff together.
When will you seize the world around you with your freedom? NOW and NOW again.
You know I don’t write long letters, and thanks to the technology of heart I don’t have to type this (yes!)
I love you in every piece of your growing soul.
In your hands sit the loving embers of a fire for justice of which my life and the lives of so many have been a part, are a part. No wonder you move those hands so swiftly and incessantly.
I speak to you slowly, deliberately, teaching you that speed is not the only approach to urgency. There is something about the ocean in you, regular, expansive, open, rhythmic, deep. Remember that there is something so ancient in you and you will not feel compelled to rush.
When I was able to realize (while I feared my life was ending) that my work had neither started nor would it end with my own life, I was able to breathe, not a release from accountability, but a release from my own ego.
This is a gift I want to offer you, earlier than I was able to hold it. I have spoken to you through the minds and mouths of your sisters “climbing poetree“: “raindrop let go. become the ocean.”
I know your small and surrounding confrontations with death and disease over these few years and these recent days frighten you. And your choice to be at once private and public about your fears threatens you further, but remember that these are crucial lessons, introducing you to the shoreline of your own becoming, the connection between your individual life and the life of the community and the universe. Remember that your life matters because we all live through you.
In your hands,
Alexis, Spirit Daughter,
Child you didn’t even have to do anything for me to see myself in your wild hair, your open heart, your questioning spirit. But you did, try to turn the world over with your art and your teaching and I had been waiting. Please know that I kept myself alive for this, to witness a next generation of black women in Durham coming into their own.
When I saw you and Ebony and Zach with Nia I knew that you would live for this, make your bodies into houses for the spirit of transformation to come through, and I had almost given up on believing it would happen. You didn’t have to do anything but be your wandering loving self for me to rest in the truth of what I already knew. Nothing is destroyed. That part of me that is life does not end.
I want you to treasure my work in the way you can. By reading and embracing, by telling everyone. You know how to make this vision irresistible, like Toni Cade said, you make it something sweet that everyone wants.
Stay close to my baby Hollis, remind him that I am alive. Celebrate those energetic grandbabies, but know that energy moves in infinite directions and my energy embraces and surrounds you.
your Mama Nayo
photo credit: Susan J Ross, ©1994
You called me up without knowing. Through repetition, through attraction. I saw people putting my name on your door. Saw you holding onto that old copy of the The Black Woman. Saw you mis-spelling “irresistable” everywhere you went.
What asha says about you and Audre is true for us. I would have loved you. And I do, through the sisters and daughters who I have sent into your life, who have carried me to you with love. Cheryll, Nikky, Kai and Aishah are the living doorways for our ongoing love. Of course we would love each other, and hear me when they tell you of their love, and I will be listening when you remember to tell them.
Now listen. The most urgent thing to tell you is that your health and the future of this world are caught up intimately. Center your wholeness. Start your day with feeding your spirit, feeding yourself before you get to everyone else you want to feed. And use our examples to truly understand what it means for this culture to be cancerous, and yet to still be the place we live. Grapple with that as you love yourself, as you love your community, as you make choices as to what and who your time and energy will embrace, and as you notice the limits of your body young one, remember your spirit, because we are all here, cheering, laughing, remembering and waiting for you to practice and fulfill being whole and at home.
With all the urgency of morning,
Big little sister,
Get your guard up against the traps that would seduce you away from your purpose and steer you towards convenience and charisma. Set yourself in the hard work of accountability and sharing. Sharing the work, sharing the skills, sharing the connections, sharing the insight. Like everyone else, I am talking about your health here.
As a worker, for justice, I was able to situate myself in the crucial places where my selflessness could birth community, but I was not so tied up in my own popularity among the inner circles of the movement(s) that I was not able to make the difficult choices, especially for economic justice, that had me excluded from so many spaces and conversations.
You are right to be youth-focused because this is about access. You are right to be obsessed with both the old and the dead because that is where you will get your grounding and context. You are right when you remember that you are not the one inventing this.
It is the example of your grandparents, your accountability to the youth and your living relationships to your sisters that will make your life and work meaningful. Never forget who your people are and what they deserve, which is all of who you are.
You have work to do.
And they didn’t want me to have any. I need you to stay awake. This life is not the only one, but you are here for a reason. I feel you holding your chest, pressing down on your heart in fear and memory of how I was taken, how June was taken, how so many were taken, Lord. And I say better, you hear me, better to eat our own bodies than to give our lives over to complacency and submission on their terms. Better to become acrobats than to fit into the narrow box they have for us. But even better baby, would be to live breathing deep and free and living yourself with a healing strength of faith and vision for all of us. Even better to reach out for community so you have what you need to keep yourself whole.
You remember what I said about sick and tired and remember what we sacrificed and why. Remember that we had you in mind and heart. And you aren’t out in any field (except that homemade field of love June talks about) breaking your back all day, and don’t contort yourself into the shape of our pain. Grow and dance into the beauty of our dream for you and all of ours.
There is more love here than anything.
Eat it up while it’s hot.
There is nothing like being at home, huh? In your skin, with your work, in the universe, with us. Nothing like it. You have this question of finding, needing your own space while valuing radical socialization. You need other people somehow. But sometimes you really need your solitude (so you can socialize with us!) You and your older women!
Ask yourself how much stability and routine you need. Where are your boundaries? Where are your shared spaces? Where is your “room of ones’ own”? Are those many rooms? What is your practice? As you know, your own clarity and diligence around these things will free you from resenting the other people you invite into your life. Being your word also means being honest about what you need. As you are learning, your very body depends on it. But your body is not the only thing worth saving.
There are these children, and your relationships to them is crucial. It’s also a relationship to yourself. Your work to move towards intimacy is ultimately on their behalf. And ironically your boundaries (and waking up early) are what will allow you to be intimate and generous with yourself. Think about Maura. This intentional self-care and intimacy is a queer practice that allows intimacy that is not “self-sacrifice.” And we have yet to fully achieve it. And we are watching you.
Love and then some,
There are things I have been trying to tell you already. Maybe you misrecognize my voice. You should go ahead and finish Carole’s book about me, it’s been sitting on your table for some time now.
It matters what you make your life out of. As my own demonstrates, you never know when you will have to pick up and leave because of your principles or some other thing about you and you never know when your time in this body is over. Or maybe you do know and you can’t admit it. Either way, life is short and like everything else, must be approached with attention to economy. How you make and share and sustain your time matters, because it is the only thing you can do. That, and depend on the miracle of words to say what you cannot say when you will not be there to say it.
That is a faith. And while you cannot count it, you can measure it in practice. You can actively every day (even and especially Sunday) tie back your labor to your own heart and resist and refuse your alienation. You can and must use words to connect.
Information is the contested resource now, so you see monopolies going up everywhere. Now as ever it will take the majority of people remembering the power of their potential cooperation to shift this world into a place where someone can live, all the time.
And the booklist and the essay and the publishing is the way to do it. And every place (the laundromat) is the place for it. And continue to be both careful, innovative and experimental with the means of your production. Do not assume that safety is where they say it is. Do not privilege the private over access. Be rigorous in your definition of autonomy.
As you know, I am not familiar or content with inheritance. But do not forget what I have left you. (Not property)