Doll Party in a State of Emergency

Baptême de Poupée ~ katia d. ulysse

100_5175Forget the curtain of fire, the curfew, the quiet streets, and those greedy graves.

Forget the glint of pear-shaped bullets, the watchmen cuddling polished riffles.

Forget.

Forget the nameless heroes silenced for sowing seeds of peace. Forget the bloodstained rope binding their wrists. Forget the defiance streaming from their swollen eyes.

Forget everything until we’ve christened the new doll.

The women will cook white rice, fry good meat, and bake a yellow cake. The men will bring drinks, ice cubes, and light bulbs: Red, blue, maybe green.

When the children’s tongues turn cola-champagne orange; when the riffles begin their pop-pop-pop lullaby, lulling the babies to sleep, the single bulb will cast a gentle glow.

The grownups will lock their bodies together, and sway to sweet slow songs sung by singers who once died here but lived elsewhere.

And everyone will be

Happy.

Baptême de Poupée was originally published in 2003, in NYU’s literary journal, Calabash, in a slightly different form. NYU.  http://www.nyu.edu/calabash/vol2no2/0202138.pdf

 

scott,walter3x4

8 Shots And A Black Box

scott,walter3x4Streets are quiet. Orioles and robins keep their beaks shut. There’s a breeze, but the leaves ignore it. The sky is bloated, but rain won’t fall. Clouds hang over Baltimore City like a lid. A coffin’s lid. 8 shots were fired in South Carolina, but murder’s deafening echo knows no boundaries.

No one is saying a word, but we’re all thinking it. It was the same in Charlottesville two weeks ago. The videos go viral. The virus at the root of this pandemic continues to spread.  The dilemma is the same everywhere: Handcuffs or resuscitate? Live to die another day . . .

It’s heart-wrenching when a mother looks at her dead son and thanks The Lord. Walter Scott’s mother cried Hallelujah. Thank God technology stepped in where justice would not. That cell phone was like an angel—an all-seeing guardian angel, silent and powerless.

Yes, Thank You, God! Thank you, Gofundme, for denying this petition. Glory to Technology.

Grief is paused. Mourning will come later. For now, it is enough that there is irrefutable evidence that a mother’s son was executed in the manner reserved for traitors. Walter Scott died running away. He died like the hunted. What a price to pay for faulty break lights!

Some of my friends have sons. Black children who at ten or eleven years old could pass for fourteen, maybe even sixteen. They are athletic. They are gregarious. They love to skate around the neighborhood. They love to run. I’ve known these kids since they were born. They are our kids. We keep our eyes on them. When they ride their bikes in the street, we stick our heads out of kitchen windows to tell them to be careful. What if one day the police have to be called? What if they see the boys running?

My friends with black boy children are afraid. A heavy lid of fear hovers over their front doors. They are raising black boys who will become black men—right here in Baltimore city. Those 8 shots were not fired here, but that echo. . .

Hands up. Mouths shut. Someone somewhere is taking candid shots. There’s no time for that lesson about the birds and the bees. Give the boys strategies for staying alive: Hands up. Mouth shut. Do not run. Don’t stand. Don’t sit. Don’t leave the house.

“But mom, I’m only ten.”

“Be quiet, listen, and pray someone somewhere has a video camera.”

There’s a heavy lid over this city today. A coffin’s lid that will come crashing like an airplane. The authorities will review the black box. What will they find now?

Yes. A black box.

We need black boxes. Technology is our savior. We need to implant black boxes under our sons’ skin? Something the authorities can review before they decide not to indict.

In interviews, Mrs. Scott says seeing what happened to her son “just tore my heart to pieces.” Then she added: “I have nothing but forgiveness in my heart.” What a godly woman!

Our condolences, Mrs. Scott and everyone who knew and loved your son. May he rest in perfect peace!

 

 

my mother gives me cooking lessons

Se Lozèy: To Thine Own Spice Be True

plantain & avocado I love the International food store, even if I have to drive too many miles to reach it. I get plantains–my American husband is now better at frying them than I am. I find mangoes from Haiti, Peru, Pakistan, Guatemala, and elsewhere. I buy cinnamon from Greece, mint from Israel, rosemary from Palestine, cilantro from Costa Rica, pears from Korea, tomatillo from Mexico, and my favorite: thanh long, a tangy dragon fruit from beautiful Vietnam. dragon fruitThis International food store isn’t the sort of spot where you might wish to linger.  It’s huge and untidy–like a bustling outdoor market. The customers speak myriad languages, but somehow we understand one another. (A little unsolicited advice: Avoid that store on Saturday mornings, unless you enjoy playing Ring Around the Rosy with other drivers in the tight parking lot). There’s no place to sit, sip a latte, and read your favorite newspaper inside the store. It’s a food market. They sell food. No Wi-Fi to help you stay connected to your online identity, just bins upon bins of savory treasures begging to be discovered. The best part: I can buy enough ingredients to create a number of my Chef-wannabe meals for under $50.00! Seriously.

candy from vietnamOne of very few characteristics which the international food store and the Safeway around the corner have in common is they both keep the shelves around the checkout lanes stacked with candy.  Children from every country in the world speak the same language, when it comes to sweets. They fix their gaze on the thing they want, point all fingers toward it, salivate, and scream. Hunger and desire transcend language. The children continue to scream, until their adult capitulates. That one parent who dares utter an unequivocal no is  the demon du jour. I was lucky my daughter didn’t care for candy.

red bullFor other weary adults waiting to pay and dash to the next errand, management proffers Red Bull, Guarana, coffee, Ginseng, ginger beer, and my favorite: Cola Champagne

Whenever I see a bottle of Cola Champagne, I have to whisper The Serenity Prayer. Word in my family iswest_indian_grocery_cold_colas that I nearly overdosed on the stuff as a infant. We owned a grocery store; there were cases and cases of Cola Champagne around every day. My dotting Papa, against my mother’s wishes, would put a little cola in my baby bottle–for flavor. “She loves it,” he would argue. I would laugh uncontrollably–so I was told. My mother didn’t find humor in any of it. I sided with my father, of course. As soon as he wasn’t around and someone tried to pry the half-cola half-milk baby bottle out of my mouth, I turned into a cross between Cujo and Regan MacNeil from The Exorcist. (My father doesn’t care for Cola Champagne anymore. I think I does pear juice now). 

machann mango an ayitiHere I am now, saying hello to the cashier while placing item after item on the belt. My throat is dry. Seeing those bottles of Cola Champagne puts all kinds of thoughts in my head.  

I notice a bottle of something called Fizzy Sorrel Drink next to the Cola Champagne. Fizzy Sorrel Drink looks good and cold. I place one on the belt–I would try it. Just in case, I would require an antidote, I picked up a bottle of Cola Champagne. Ok. I bought two.

As soon as I leave the store, I open my bottle of Fizzy Sorrell Drink and take a long swig. I see something else on the label. It’s a French translation: “Boisson à L’oseille.”  And just like that, the universe shifted. 

L’oseille. Sorrel. Lozèy! Elementary, my dear Watson. I solved a great mystery. Finally!

sorrel on branchA Haitian woman who will soon celebrate a century of living is known for exclaiming, “Se lozèy!” at those moments when someone else might shout “Wow!” or “Get outta here!” or “Fantastic!”  or my mother’s favorite: “Quelle Merveille!” The phrase became associated with the soon to be 100 year old the way  “This is the big one, Elizabeth!” is associated with Fred Sanford; the way that “Damn, damn, damn!” belongs to Florida Evans, and “Yabba Dabba Doo!” is Fred Flinstone’s alone.

“Se lozèy!” Finally, I know what it means. Yay me!

Not quite.

I always worry that the elderly is being left out of the “Build Haiti Back Better” campaign. Our granmoun are the backbone and cornerstone of society. Women like my grandmother who passed away April 2, 2012, carry volumes of history books inside their heads. Once they’re gone, mountains of treasure go with them. That’s something to worry about, when you consider that the majority of people now living in Haiti is under 30 years old. I guess this makes 50 the new 90. Scary. I would consider myself beyond fortunate to have a genuine 90 year old explain life to me, based on experience.  

my mother gives me cooking lessonsStumped. I call my Mother. She’s considerably younger than 90, but she is wise and wonderful. Thank God! The woman carries so much information in her head, you’d think she had a computer for a brain. Yes, we all have computers in our heads; the difference is my mother knows the password to hers and has mastered enough of its functions to be able to stand on her own feet today. 

“Alo, D—” she says.

After the preliminaries, I tell her about Fizzy Sorrel Drink.

“Did you drink it?” she wants to know.

I don’t answer. I already know what she’ll say. 

sorrell juice“Don’t swallow things just because you’re curious about the taste. If you see somebody jump from a bridge, would you jump too– just to see what it’s like? What is this sorrel? Never heard of it. I hope you didn’t ingest it.”

sorrel-red-veined-

I don’t mention the Malbec. Forget about that pamplemousse, ginger, and rum potion I discovered in Haiti recently. I continue: “The label says Fizzy Sorrel Drink is Boisson à l’oseille. That ‘s French for lozèy, right?”

Mother dear sounds a bit annoyed, as if to say: “How can you not know what lozèy is? Didn’t I teach you anything at all?”

“Sure you did, Ma.” It’s just that I’ve forgotten the password for my own brain computer, and can’t reset it until you tell me what lozèy is.

“It’s a plant that grows wild in Haiti. If you want to make the kind of soup that will keep your family around the dinner table, put some lozèy in it.”

“Is lozèy some sort of magic or medicinal plant?”

SAM_0415.jpg“It has medicinal properties.” She listed various ailments lozèy has cured throughout the generations, and then said: “As for magic, lozèy could probably draw enough flavor out of a grain of sand to make your taste buds dance konpa for hours. That’s what lozèy does. It wakes up your food. If you want to know about herbs and spices, start and finish with lozèy.”

“Food is like an unlit candle, until you put Sorrel or lozèy or l’oseille in it.” 

“Lozèy is like the match you need to light the candle. Back in Haiti, it grew like weeds. Now, you probably have to go to an international food store to get a few leaves.”

My mother is right, but as a gardener known for her green thumb, I know what I will plant this summer. Wish me luck.  

Elizabeth Ann Eckford - will_counts1_f

Little Rock Nine and School Today

little-rock-nine-studentsIt was supposed to be the beginning of a new school year: a season pregnant with expectation and optimism–not a time to be caught in other people’s petty, stale, and violent wars.

The year was 1957. Teachers, good and refreshed after well-deserved summer vacations, had prepared thoughtful and engaging lessons based on students’ individual learning styles. They would level the playing field by meeting students at their point of readiness; they would explain the value of a good education. They would grade papers and mark in the margins suggestions for improvements.

Governor Orval Eugene Faubus–hellbent on preventing black and white students from sitting together in the same classroom–had prepared his own engaging lesson. He would attempt to implement it so meticulously that it would take federal troops to convince him to modify it. Students deserved the same opportunity to thrive, but the Governor disagreed and planned to acquaint the world with what he considered a valid argument.

Uncertain of his own power to defy the Supreme Court ruling that outlawed segregation (Brown v. Board of Education), Governor Faubus summoned the Arkansas National Guard to prevent student Elizabeth Ann Eckford from entering the school building. For extra reinforcement, mobs of grown men, women, and their children–armed with clubs, stinging insults, and the venomous spit of their mouths–gathered to provide extra reinforcement. The Little Rock Nine would enter the school only over their dead bodies; and they did not plan to die. They would refuse to give up their brutal fight. The only resolution, as far as they were concerned, would be to inform those too stubborn to understand the prevailing rule: Black and white did not mix. Black children and white children would not sit together in the same classroom. They would not risk some bleeding-heart teacher to lavish upon the blacks the education they did not deserve anyhow.

Elizabeth Ann Eckford - will_counts1_fElizabeth Eckford had wanted only to go to school–like most ‘normal’  high school students.  Holding her books securely against her chest, she took careful steps toward Central High’s front door. She did not care about the political statement which her unwanted presence brought forth. She wanted only to read, write, excel–just like everyone else in America whose birthright was to receive whatever education the school could provide.

Bullies disguised as everyday white folk had gathered to teach Elizabeth their own well-planned and rigorous lesson.  Their objective: Student will be so completely traumatized and terrorized that she will run/walk/stumble as far away from Central High and everyone’s sight as swiftly as possible.

The bullies won that September morning.  They pumped their fists and spat as Elizabeth walked back to her bus stop, leaving Little Rock’s Central High School. The girl’s face was set like stone. But like any stone thrown violently into a body of water, Elizabeth Eckford caused concentric circles that would spread to this day.

When Elizabeth returned to Central High weeks after she was forced to flee, eight other determined students had joined her. The hate-mobs returned as well, but they were like paper dolls in a hurricane. The winds of change would scatter them; history would be made.

d090457Millions of black students walk into schools today with an opportunity to learn because The Little Rock Nine had challenged the status quo. Elizabeth and her schoolmates were like nine stones hurled into the seemingly infinite ocean of racism, causing concentric circles to spread so far and so wide within the Civil Rights Movement that we see them even today.

This Black History Month, VoicesfromHaiti honors Melba Pattillo Beals, Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Ann Eckford, Ernest Green, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Themlma Mothershed, and Terrence Roberts: The Little Rock Nine who risked their lives for a chance to go to school.

Nowadays when I walk through a metal detector to teach a group of high school students at a school in South East Baltimore, I think about the nine students whose decision it was to better themselves against stiff opposition. Nowadays, as I fear for my safety while attempting to teach a class, I wonder what the nine students would make of present day’s outrageously violent school culture. Everyday when certain students come to  certain schools, they hurl the same venomous words at their teaches which the angry mob had fired at Elizabeth and her classmates. I wonder if certain high school kids today know how lucky they are to be able to walk into a building where teachers prepare lessons which they cannot implement, due to students’ incessant interruptions. In hallways heavily guarded with security guards and other police personnel, fights and cell phones blasting music, pants with a mind of their own are the norm. Students who are out of jail on the condition that they wear the box around their ankles, proudly show them off.  How special they are to have every monitored step they take move them in the direction which Elizabeth and the others nearly died to avoid.

 

We are Beautiful and We Are Here