Posted by: MC | October 6, 2010

Columbus Day: Do You Know Where You Are?

Yesterday I sat again across a small table from Dr. Dapo, one of the 100 voices of EX:Change (EX:C blog, “What’s in a Name?” 4-13-2010).  We had seen one another on Multnomah Ave. several weeks earlier. I was walking fast toward the Max Station and Dapo was driving in the opposite direction.  He honked and we stopped traffic for long enough to promise to find yesterday’s tea and coffee.

Dapo (as he calls himself, inviting others to join in) is a man in his 70’s.  He is and always will be Nigerian.  Since the early 60’s he also is and always will be American.  A third thing in the long and richly textured list describing Dr. Dapo is his inescapably wise character and his related versatility as a holy man – a devotee, student and guide of spirit.

Yesterday, Dr. Dapo’s primary focus was his abiding concern with what he sees as a profound tragedy for African American youth.  “They do not know where they are.”

Dapo told of a friend who returned recently from viewing a newly opened museum on our country’s history with slavery.  His friend described a quote etched into a wall as part of an exhibit.  “It was as if they were quoting you, Dapo,” his friend said.  “The quote read, ‘They did not know where they came from.  They did not know where they were.’”

Last week, I wrote about kinship in the land.  The people I was thinking of as I wrote are classmates from my high school years in Texas.  It is so. We are connected deeply and wordlessly through the particular land known as the hillcountry of Texas.  We also share the experience of growing up in a rural community.  Our town is the county seat, but it was small then – 15,000 people – and it has an only slightly larger population, now.

The other thing we had in common in last week’s gathering was considerable European ancestry.  Some among us are Latino or Chicano.  Some have Native American ancestors.  All of us have ancestors who chose to come to this place we now know as our nation.  And all of us feel connection with this land.  We have grounding, a sense of home.  I had rarely considered that a strong sense of homeland is not a universally shared privilege.  I hadn’t thought deeply about what it might be like never to feel at home.

For those of us gathered for the Tivy High School reunion last week, most if not all of our European, Latino and Chicano ancestors came to this country voluntarily.  Conditions may have been dire, but those ancestors were not stolen and sold.  Dapo, too, came from Nigeria to the U.S. of his own will.  Maybe that’s the difference he is seeing.

I will check this more with my African American friends.

It is also worth noting the timing of our conversation early in the month of October – the month when American’s get a day off in recognition of “Columbus Day.”  Columbus, a man from Portugal seeking fame and fortune, found both as an emissary of the royalty of Spain when he bumped into the North American continent to put the biggest European stamp to date on the land.  In effect it said, “Ours.”  There was little to no acknowledgement of the people for whom the land had been home for time immemorial.

In nearly the same place Columbus landed, as the indigenous Taino people were dying from small pox and mistreatment, the earliest North American commerce in human beings took place as people brought forcibly from Africa were sold as slaves.

It is really no overstatement to take notice of the inescapable link between the impact of Columbus landing on North American shores in 1492 and the conversation Dapo and I had yesterday.  The extinction and enslavement of human beings is a real part of our shared history.  It has implications for who does and doesn’t feel at home.

It’s not always comfortable, but it is the conversations in friendships like mine with Dapo that make my world larger.  They make visible things I couldn’t otherwise see.   Not because of any conscious narrow-mindedness or rigidity.  Not because of any latent desire to conquer.  But probably because privilege can be very hard to see, and certainly because of the limits of experience.

For many reasons, I haven’t had to give much thought to my comfort with place.  I have a very deep love for several places that have been homes to me – in particular, that Texas hillcountry I keep talking about, and the Yosemite Valley (but that’s another story).  Only recently have I come to see what a great privilege it is to feel safe and at home.

The possibility of lots of people in this country feeling they “do not know where they are,” as Dr Dapo describes it, is a thought I want to take beyond reflection and consideration and into some kind of action.  The first step is always listening.

Dr. Dapo has been listening to African American youth in our community.  Yesterday he spoke with passion and pain in his voice about his conclusion – about his concern.  There were no African American youth there to speak for themselves.  That makes me want to listen more.  It makes listening more a necessity.  As loving and wise and healing as Dr. Dapo is, his conclusions rest on his interpretation of his young students.  What do they say for and of themselves?

At every turn, the EX:Change offers these opportunities for listening.  Dapo’s listening takes the squelch off voices that have gone unheard.

A few minutes ago I received e-mail.  “I strongly believe you love our global community as I do.”  It was from Dapo.

“As I said to you, I’m a man of the scriptures.  Words there made sense to me a lot.  I find them right on my face.  I cling to Psalm 37:4–which stipulates–‘Delight yourself in the Lord.  He would give you the desire of your heart.’ My desire for the world–all the people–is for us to live together in peace. Share, love each with great understanding.”

Feeling at home on the land is a birthright.  Dapo is listening.  EX:Change is listening.  It’s part of what we can do in support of each of us being and knowing where we are.

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