“Isn’t it amazing we can drive down Joseph Lowry and across Ralph David Abernathy??” “We can fly into Hartsfield-JACKSON and am welcomed home by that little Black child at the top of the escalators…Our history is everywhere.”
Remnants of a conversation I had with a friend while I was home. It reverberated through my mind as I watched Selma, none of the main characters escaped my knowledge. “Oh there’s young John Lewis! That’s Hosea Williams!” Those were some of the men who made my city what it is and it is in their footsteps every other Black leader of Atlanta followed in. It made me think of lineage. I’d shared an experience from Bali with Taylor and Kate during a break at the conference. I told them that in family compounds in Bali, ancestors were cremated and kept at the home. As was the placenta of every person born in the family. It was quite unimaginable to ever leave home because of the strong tie to ancestors and your own lineage. Equally, selling property was not common because technically the land was not yours alone, but that of your entire bloodline. It made me also think of the witches in The Originals, silly show maybe, but they are ancestral witches and get all their power from those who have come before them. It didn’t feel so far-fetched.
Returning back to the movie, I was struck from the opening minutes of the film. Aside from an absolutely stellar performance by David Oyelowo, I couldn’t stop myself from being emotional during most of the story. I’ll try to describe my experience in layers. There was the most obvious layer of being a human being watching an incredible story of one of our nation’s greatest heroes. His struggle and vision, determination and faith was so moving and for once so human. We saw him falter within his family, deal with with pride, with humility, with doubt and worry. We saw him be made real. That is incredibly appealing and necessary for people to grasp that he was just a man with a vision who felt he was out to do what he was called to do. What if we were all so bound to vision and purpose? It disrupts capitalism to be satisfied with what is versus coveting more or less of what we have. But what might emerge in its place?
Next, there was the part of me who was so in awe of the courage, the unwavering ability to stand not for self but for that which is bigger than you and to allow yourself to be humbled. I thought of myself, naturally, and wondered. How can I? How do I? How will I? How many times have I prayed to simply be of service? To simply be used…allow me to be a vessel.
I next saw a Black man. Several Black men, in many ways fighting the same struggle I see Black men fight today. Only something about this Black man felt intangible. Like it, too, was a dream or only just a character in a movie. Instead of a Coretta, the coveted prize is Carly. And somehow my being intimidates and emasculates what I know to be Black men. Even Coretta wasn’t enough. I wondered if that was just a story I tell myself or if that was simply the truth? And if it was silly or regressive to hold so sacred the idea of the Black family? Why do I care when so many others do not? And is the way in which I care wrong? Is it too idealistic? Am I expecting…part of me understands. That for men who are struck down when they dare to stand upright they need at least their own home to feel like a palace where they hold jurisdiction and authority. And the ruling partner by his side affirming him. On the other hand, the Black woman was not built to stroke an ego nor serve the powerless. In some ways my idea of the Black family is more evolved or maybe just revolved from what now exists as the black man black woman narrative. It very much requires each one having unshakeable knowledge of who they are and that from which they came. And, I suppose, that which they will produce. I realize I speak solely of opposite gender relationships in my pairing partly because of my own orientation and partly because I am not sure of the expectations of other types of relationships.
Then Atlanta. Several miles from the center of the film and yet home to many of the film’s protagonists. My home. The greatest city in the world for Black people. Not without its faults, but with enough history and lineage in the streets alone to sooth your negro soul. I love Atlanta. I love the ride down Bankhead with the windows down and the smell of fried fish. I love the long stretch of Westview which made Willie Watkins a household name. I love the Black Santa at Greenbriar mall. I love both sides of Cascade, ITP and OTP. I love my city. If you have to travel the world to learn where home is, then do it. And then return. The longer the story unfolded the deeper my longing got for Atlanta. Sometimes I crave it so much for no reason at all. But maybe just because it’s in me. Which would almost suggest that I didn’t need to return…
Lastly, I was again reminded of my height. I stand on the shoulders of so many who have come before me. It is not lost on me what my accomplishments mean. Though sometimes they feel insignificant, I recognize that fifty years ago I could barely vote let alone do the things I have been able to do. Attend a wealthy (White) private Catholic school in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. That I would receive a full scholarship for my studies. That I would be given job and development opportunities to further my learning and my professional growth. That I would be working for a very different kind of freedom. Thank you is not a big enough expression of the gratitude I feel. When I consider my life, I’ve started to think about repaying my debts. Loans from the past owed to the future, with interest. I owe it to my community to succeed. To achieve. To thrive. Yes, I owe it to myself as well, but I am not the only one who got me here.
It is overwhelming, the emotions that Selma brought up for me. But what I can say without question is that it was so worth it. To remember who I am and who came before and fought battles I know nothing about in order to make a way for MY life to be better. It is my job to keep fighting. For the next generation, not to forget the past but to allow it to teach me (how to win another way).