Sunday, April 09, 2006

Coming down -- gradually ...

It's been over a week since I've written anything ... but when I found myself unable to sit at my computer without bursting into tears -- I figured it was time to start the decompression process. There were moments after I completed the last entry when the thoughts -- the memories -- the emotions were so overwhelming that my breathing had become truncated and my tongue began to stick to my teeth and the sides of my mouth -- and no amount of liquid could satisfy the thirst. Had it not been for the fact that there were enough reasonable explanations for such a state, I would have become a victim of my own vivid imagination and thoughts of diabetes and/or potential stroke surely would have occurred to me. Realization that -- had it not been for the fact that I'd (wisely) decided to take along a "witness" (Kokee), this was the point where I would have begun to erase the experiences from memory and to reject the wonder of the past several days. By this time I'd have settled into what goes as normalcy for me and climbed back into my pumpkin yet another time. But it was not to be. I've lived every minute of the magic -- and it would not be denied back into the "ordinary."

We woke on Wednesday, the day of the award ceremony, with the promise from Martha of another tour of the nation's treasures. Kokee was anxious to see where African Americans lived in the Anacostia area of the District, as was I. Martha arrived ready for another day of sharing our odyssey and off we went. Today we would visit the Frederick Douglas home and the African American Museum, a National Park Service site that was not on the great mall, but had been placed in the core of Anacostia. I'd heard about this area for years but had no idea what to expect. It is a visibly depressed, antiquated and oddly unpopulated area made up of many multi-storied brick housing structures mixed in with ageless bungalows wearing the usual iron bars on windows found so inescapable in black neighborhoods throughout very low income districts; barren trees nude for the winter season. The absence of people on the streets in midday added to the desolation. That felt strange, but might have been explained by the time of the year and the just above freezing temperatures.

We'd already been deeply impressed by the handsome and well-dressed and very professional young African American men and women who serviced the desks and counters at our exclusive Hyatt Grand Washington hotel, and the welcoming and well-informed young African American national park rangers at Arlington House and elsewhere, but we had not yet experienced the black community, as such.

Nothing had prepared me for what the next few minutes would hold. We walked into the African American Museum to find a remarkable exhibit featuring "Reclaiming Midwives; Pillars of Community Support." And with no warning I found myself standing under a photograph of a black slave midwife -- with an astoundingly familiar text that described -- in a formal way -- precisely the story told me to as a child so many years ago -- by Papa George and later by Aunt Vivian -- the description of the life of Mammá in all of the dramatic details that filled in the spaces that my child's mind had missed and my adult mind may have found too painful to absorb.

I found myself speechless; sobbing uncontrollably -- feeling as if this was the reason for all that had happened to me over these past miraculous days -- the rationale for the honors being bestowed, and the trip to the foot of the Lincoln Memorial. Here before me, indeed, were the women who had lived the lives of the unsung, the neglected, and shamefully exploited "Builders of Communities and Dreams."

I finally understood a system that I'd bought into unknowingly from childhood; a destiny I'd been living out without a script. For the first time in my long life I had a feeling of total fulfillment of my destiny. The tears would not stop. I made no attempt to control them. I'm sure that my sobs were audible. At some point a woman (white) tourist quietly approached to gently press a small packet of tissues into my palm. I accepted it without comment. No words were needed. She seemed to know. In that moment there were no spaces between. She then stepped back into her stranger-ness and I into that weird combination of joy and grief and a kind of communing over time and space with a past I'd really never known but in some strange way found familiar. I seemed to be remembering things I'd never experienced.

Taking photos of this show was prohibited for some reason, so I cannot reproduce those texts here, but I will take some of the pictures from the brochure in the hope that I can communicate some of what I found there. It will not surprise me if that turns out to be impossible to reproduce, but over the next days I may find a way to use words well enough to describe the experience. Whatever it was that so moved me has stood in the way of my writing since March 30th. Today is the first attempt at beginning to sort it all out.

Photo: Brochure from the show, and a key component of the great adventure in the shadow of the Great Emancipator.

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