Breathing Blackness

On Lago de Atitlán, in the town of Santa Cruz, I met a Swiss woman working at the hostel there. One late night of drinking beer with her and the American expats and Europeans who either ran or stayed at the place, she said, “You’re the first black American I’ve ever met.”

“Oh,” I said.

She said, “Why don’t I see more of you in the world? Why don’t more black Americans travel?”

As is generally the case when I’m asked to speak for All Black Americans, I was at a loss. “I don’t know,” I fumbled. “Maybe because generally black Americans don’t have as much money as white Americans?”

It was an unsatisfactory answer, for both of us. In the days weeks years since, I realized I could have said, “Because we have been disenfranchised and discriminated against throughout the course of history,” as a better version of that answer. I could have said, “Because when we get to travel, we usually go to Africa or countries in the African diaspora.” I could have said, “We do. You just don’t see us. I was just in Xela, in a language immersion program with a black woman from San Francisco.” There is no good or correct answer.

But some bad, hard days, her question floats into my mind, and I think, “Because we are too busy trying desperately to survive. Just to survive. We live in a culture that wants us dead.”

If I’m lucky, then, I remember a poem that has become necessary to my life. I wish it didn’t have to be, that I wouldn’t need to say these words to myself just to keep moving, just to keep breathing.

Here it is. I hope someone else who needs it finds it now.

P.S. Extra credit assignment from my friend Khary Jackson.

*

won’t you celebrate with me

won’t you celebrate with me

what

i have shaped into

a kind of life? i had no model.

born in babylon

both nonwhite and woman

what did i see to be except myself?

i made it up

here on this bridge between

starshine and clay,

my one hand holding tight

my other hand; come celebrate

with me that everyday

something has tried to kill me

and has failed.

–lucille clifton

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