Mbaraga (Strength/Power)

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I grew up in a nuclear family. My mom baked cookies on the first day of school (sometimes she burned them). My Dad called me his Princess. My brother has a scar on his wrist from a bike racing accident, bourne of our mutually overzealous competition.

We had a dog. She slept in my parents’ bed. We bought her special, organic food for weight management and took her to special veterinarians for her arthritis. She rests beneath a custom-marked gravestone in my grandparents’ garden.

My brother was bitten by the neighbors’ dog, once. I was 10. For the succeeding six months, we as a family tip-toed gingerly around our own household dog, knowing the trauma she temporarily signified in the context of my brother’s experience.

The U.S. Deparment of Justice released a report on the Ferguson police department in 2015. According to the report, in the preceding five years,

“The department’s own records demonstrate that, as with other types of force, canine officers use dogs out of proportion to the threat posed by the people they encounter, leaving serious puncture wounds to nonviolent offenders, some of them children. Furthermore, in every canine bite incident for which racial information is available, the subject was African American. This disparity, in combination with the decision to deploy canines in circumstances with a seemingly low objective threat, suggests that race may play an impermissible role in officers’ decisions to deploy canines.” (In fact, police use of canines to employ excessive force against African Americans is a decades-old phenomenon)

“Do you have both parents?”

In Rwanda, family questions are not small talk. They potentially signify trauma in the context of lived national experience. Assumptions may unearth pain and are thus avoided. No one asks:

“What does your Dad do?”

“How old is your mom?”

“Where do your parents live?”

Many Rwandans do not like dogs. And not just because hardened, “mean” mutts are the most common variety in East Africa. For many, dogs symbolize trauma in the context of national and personal experience.

What do I know about Americans? Americans love dogs. Specifically, an American subculture of affluent, predominantly white suburbanites loves dogs. Plenty of other people love dogs, too. But I should not assume that they do.

I don’t want your beautiful

Because your pretty hurts

My y chromosome is 

For sale

And you ask that I

Sit down

Shut up

Smile pretty

When you’re done making money

From my body

Appropriating power

From my body

I still have to live

In my body

And you make it really

Hard

So no I won’t sit down

Shut up

Smile pretty

I’d rather

Take up space

Louder.

Build your country with

Black bodies

Guard your profits from

Black bodies

Commodify

Black bodies

Teach the world to fear

Black bodies

Paint the blood,the sweat onto

Black bodies

It’s nothing we destroy

Black bodies

Let them rot in the

Segregated sunlight, unforgiving sunlight

Four hours

Nothing

No one

I can’t breathe

Look away 

It’s easier

Louder.

Invent a new

Beautiful

Reevaluate what’s

Beautiful

Aging, toxic, corrosive

Beautiful

Engineered to suppress and 

Exclude

With your words label the

Vulnerable

Everyday we exist and it is

Beautiful

In fragility find power

In fragile human souls

You want an America that was

I live in an America that is

And we dream of one that will be

Tomorrow

While we are on the subject of assumptions, I will offer another: all Americans are rich white people. Or so is the perception, from my experience in East Africa. Yes, it is true, in comparison to East African nationals, Americans are, on average, more likely to be wealthy and more likely to be white. But this is a single story. And one that we, as a society and a culture, must take ownership of writing.

At TedGlobal 2014, multilocal writer Taiye Selasi gave a talk challenging conceptions of home, inviting her audience to ask not “where are you from?” but “where are you a local?” (“where do you consider home?”). In advocating for inclusive language, Selasi advocates for individual agency in determining residence and for an engagement with others on the basis of experiences and not nationality. She proposes three criteria for determining locality: rituals, relationships, and restrictions.

When we conceive restrictions, we think most often of restricted movement or “passport privilege.” This is very, very real and worth addressing. However, I would several powerful, less visible restrictions often impact one’s ability to transcend nationality. Financial resources impose obvious constraints. But what about political oppression or civil conflict which expels some from home countries and prohibits others from leaving foreign safe havens? What about institutionalized racism, which limits the ability of individuals of color worldwide to feel truly at home in a host nation? What about restrictions on cultural capital and access to information, insuring that those with “global know-how” are disproportionately elite? What about the psychological limitations imposed by reality, by the daily exercise of tailoring your dreams, plans and expectations to your real or perceived financial, political, and sociocultural position in the world that you inhabit?

In conclusion, all Americans are not rich white people. Most Americans with the privilege of leaving America happen to be disproportionately wealthy and white. And, I’m sure, most of them like dogs.

“The mind, when isolated from other minds, can become rigid and intolerant, a caricature of itself, but ideas-often good ideas-grow and develop in the presence of others.” (Mark Lamont Hill, Nobody: Casualties of America’s War on the Vulnerable)

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