A part of me is always at war. I accept it. There's no way to escape fact. My American life, black, woman, queer, and unbowed wakes each morning sure that while the sun shines into my eyes, I will have to assert verbally or bodily, my right to walk this land freely, without encumbrance, without imposition, and without permission.
This is new, accepting the war's physicality. Since second grade, when I worked myself into a headache in Mrs. Wilson's Pine Bluff Arkansas classroom, wondering how I had already formed the opinion that the wealthy and nameless white girl's spit was more pure than Katrina Ramsey's broke-ass black spit, I understood the psychological attack against my identity (no lie). I sat analyzing that cognitive dissonance at seven. I sat and thought back to first grade and to the red-haired farm worker girl with freckles who smelled of wind and lettuce. She'd arrived late in the school year and spoke no English. She stayed a few weeks, then left. We never learned her name and she never learned ours, yet I had in the depths of my understanding, at six, in the mist-soaked valleys of Oxnard California, ranked her below the long-haired white girl with the perfumed Avon broaches, the girl the boys, black, white and brown chased around the black top during boys chase girls. I accepted a vanquishing, at seven. I hadn't known how it happened. I knew only that it was there, somewhere inside me and that Mama had us coloring the white kids in the library books black (not brown) didn't matter one bit. This psychic onslaught against my blackness would forever require resistance. Fine. Forward. Battle on.
Mama and Tatum, two vanquished revolutionaries, who'd bought into the promise of civil rights integrationism, walked away, their bodies in tact, from the guns and bank bombings and police shoot outs and communist affiliations. They ushered us into the suburbs and a hope for us in this land. They had left their dusty homeland in Arkansas and bought a piece of an American future in California.
They worked double-time to infuse us with a sense of psychic wholeness. At five, we I sat at the kitchen table, staring at a map, "This is Ethiopia. Their king, Menelik, fought the Italians out of his country. This is who we are." They taught us that who America said we were, we were not. America saw us as former slaves, clowning and begging and sexing and buck-dancing our way in and through the sooty margins of its mainstream/white society. Yet, we knew ourselves not as marginal people, but round and whole and complicated and pretty and lacking and prideful and gentle and generous and low-down. That we knew. The psychic battle, we accepted and fought on--though I know my brothers acquiesced at a point, decided it best to be an American nigger than to be alone. I chose to be alone, save my junior year of high school (God forgive me). I bounced back, refusing to bow to the American nigger consciousness. I resisted the psychosis, or so I thought. I had determined to be free of the thing that I, at seven, had thought most threatening.
And forty-two years later, a new thing has emerged: America belongs to me too. This land -- its rocks and water and air and trees -- is mine. For forty-eight years, I have planted my feet in places more solidly than in others. I have brushed against the leaves of trees more heartily in Arkansas and Georgia than in Yosemite and Monterey. I have adopted a segregated notion of my physical belonging that has, in essence, denied me the full gift of my birthright. I belong everywhere.
I write the natural world into all my works because it my heritage. Writing of the African diaspora reflects the cosmological notion that the trees and soil and water and air and stars have as much to say as any character in any story. When my parents, children of a southern agrarian culture, migrated to California, they brought with them an adoration for the natural world. They gave it to us: we camped in Yosemite every summer. We wound our green sleeper van around the curves and crashing waves at Big Sur. We fished. We hiked. We swam. We planted. We noticed.
Wherever we ventured, Mama remarked on how the whitefolx stared at us, as if we didn't belong. "Why they everywhere?" she asked. "Can't we go somewhere where they not?" Mama, defensively racist, wanted to feel the same freedom at Yosemite that she felt on Black Lake, behind her family home in Arkansas. She spoke a resistance to their presumptive glares. Their eyes shot at us messages, messages that made her uncomfortable. Their eyes said the land belonged to them and not us. The lie.
Over the last seven years I have visited Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, Monterey, Point Lobos and hiked trails through the redwoods and along the California coast. Something has changed. My last trip to Tahoe I watched the Latino folx walking the sidewalks along King's Beach and thought what a trick of history that these beautiful brown people have been made to feel like visitors on this land that once belonged to them. They do not own the cabins along the water's edge. The cabins belong to the people who believe the history of this land began once they killed enough people to claim it as theirs. I will forever resist that untruth.
My friends and I rent a cabin from a wealthy white woman when we visit and we stretch our necks to connect eyes with other black and brown folx wading in the lake's gentle waves. Each year, more of us appear. My last two trips to Yosemite, I noticed the population shift: busloads of East Indian tourists disembark beside the mademoiselles and frauleins. Latino families cookout beside Merced Creek. Black families snap photos of El Capitan. I now feel more at home under the same trees I had stood under in 1980. The stares matter little now because we are more and we are over here and over there. We have begun, I have begun to walk here, in this America as if it belongs to me because I know it does.