Work Trips and a Camera: Seeing the Other And #SayHerName 

“I cast an objective gaze over myself, discovered my blackness, my ethnic features; deafened by cannibalism, backwardness, fetishism, racial stigmas, slave traders, […] Disoriented, incapable of confronting the Other, the white man, who had no scruples about imprisoning me, I transported myself on that particular day far, very far, from my self, and gave myself up as an object. What did this mean to me? Peeling, stripping my skin, causing a hemorrhage that left congealed black blood all over my body. Yet this reconsideration of myself, this thematization, was not my idea. I wanted simply to be a man among men…” -Frantz Fanon

When we drove up she was standing on the porch looking at us through the rails. 20 of us strangers but familiar in a way – clean tshirts and work pants wearing hats and sunglasses holding water bottles with gloves, but she didn’t back away. Three, maybe four years old, she examined us carefully with unblinking black eyes and fingers in her mouth and soft hair poofed up in a cloud around her little face. Barefoot and shorts slightly too big likely handed down to her. Someone greeted her asking her name.

“Evaline,” she said softly. She went back inside.

***

She came bounding up and threw her elbows down next to me on the high, makeshift table. “Whatcha doing?” she quipped at me like we’d been friends for a long time.

I was looking at my phone taking a break in the shade. Shoulders aching a little from post holing and catching up on putting photos on the Instagram account for the church youth group. She startled me a little – so brazen but fresh and airy, like doors flung open on the first spring day after a dreary winter. I inhaled her light as she swung a hammer blithely  hitting the head into her palm ready to get into something.

“Oh!” I smiled. “You ready to work?” She nodded and beamed at me. “I’m Mihee. What’s your name?” I asked her.

“Makaya,” she said.

“A little girl was looking for you – yelling your name,” I told her. “Yeah, probably Evaline. She’s my cousin,” she waved a hand at me.

And before I could respond she skipped away. I watched her chuckle with someone and later saw her with a fancy camera – borrowed from one of our adults – snapping photos and asking everyone to smile for her.

***

I go back to Frantz Fanon often when reflecting on perspective and blackness – where blackness came from and how it “happened” for him. In Black Skin, White Masks he talks about entering the white world and felt the weight of the “white gaze,” and he experienced his otherness by becoming aware of racial attitudes which up to that point had not existed for him. In his chapter, “The Lived Experience of the Black,” Fanon recounts his experience on a train of being “fixed” by a white other—an other which happened to be a child who had already been habituated to see blacks as defined by the white imagination. As the child’s refrain, “Look! A Negro!,” crescendoed forth and came to a close with a fearful questioning of the “Negro’s” next move, Fanon not only experienced the gaze of the white other, he also began to see himself through the white gaze.

The white gaze. It overpowers and consumes, and it becomes the lens that we all look through to perceive others. We all do it even if we are not white. We all do it even if we don’t want to do it. For some it empowers. For some it oppresses. For some it uses and scapegoats. I’m the scapegoat sometimes – a prop that upholds whiteness.

***

I watched Makaya playing with the younger youth group kids. The three were silly together as typical 11 year olds – giggling and squealing throwing tortilla chips at one another making up games and jokes. She’s tall and lanky – all limbs – short shorts and a tight gray top – hair tied down in two spots and poofed out in the back, she sat down next to an older youth group kid in the trunk of the van with the back door open who smiled at her with her green eyes. Evaline came out to watch and Makaya grabbed her in a big bear hug as she tried to squirm away. Soon they all crammed in sitting across and I couldn’t help it. I pulled my phone out to take a photo of them.

They were cute. Precious. My mind raced through Fanon’s words again and I wondered if my gaze was oppressive? Did they inwardly cringe at my lens pointed straight at them? Did they wonder who I was and who they were as the flash went off? Did they feel safe? I thanked them and had them look at the photo. Both convulsed with glee at their expressions and silliness.

As I looked at them my mind went to McKinney, Texas and DeJarria Becton. I see the video replaying in my mind from the point of view of the one holding the smartphone and realize I can’t fathom the feeling she must have felt as her face was ground into the dirt by the police officer’s foot. I can’t fathom the feeling she must have felt as her air was slowly stolen from her lungs as she cried for her mother. I can’t fathom the fear and resignation and confusion and anger as she lay paralyzed by the weight of this man on top of her, though perhaps a weight that she carries with her in her soul all the time.

But tall and lanky Makaya – young and strong and vulnerable and true. She looks like she knows herself. And I think this is what love and justice looks like – she is near to herself and rooted in her body and mirth and play – and I think of my beautiful black sisters and their daughters – and they all make me see that it is being rooted in your courageous beauty and joy that is the substance of reconciliation, and I imagine all kinds of possibilities when it comes to the kingdom work of resistance and reconciliation and revolution – that it isn’t just huge empires and principalities that need to fall but these moments that are drenched in whiteness and privilege and Christian saviorism – these are the structures that need to fall – these are the subtle and insidious systems that perpetuate the thinking that it is ok to tackle a young girl, draw a gun on young boys, drive by to shoot and kill a child in a park – these moments in front of and behind a camera and sitting in the back of a van where we can clumsily etch and chisel out out space for them to work and play and take photos and tell jokes – for small but eternal connections – not only to each other but to oneself – with the Eucharistic elements of tortilla chips and sweat and where laughter is prayer.

I look at the kids in front of me – all ages, all colors, all equally beautiful, all equally hyper, all equally obnoxious and adolescent, all equally innocent and wonderful and full of life. The light and love streaming from each one is blinding, and I can’t tell the difference but I feel and see it from each one.

Each. One.

***

#sayhername

This is for Aisha, this is for Kashera
This is for Khadijah scared to look up in the mirror
I see the picture clearer thru the stain on the frame
She got a black girl name, she livin black girl pain
This is for Makeba, and for my mamacita
What’s really good, ma? I’ll be your promise-keeper
I see the picture clearer thru the stain on the frame

She got a black girl name, she livin black girl pain
My mama said life would be so hardGrowin up days as a black girl scarred
In so many ways though we’ve come so far
They just know the name they don’t know the pain
So please hold your heads up high
Don’t be ashamed of yourself know I
Will carry it forth til the day I die
They just know the name they don’t know the pain black girl
This is for Beatrice Bertha Benjamin who gave birth to

Tsidi Azeeda for Lavender Hill for Kyalisha
ALTHLONE, Mitchells Plain, Swazi girls I’m reppin for thee
Mannesburg, Guguletu where you’d just be blessed to get thru
For beauty shinin thru like the sun at the highest noon

From the top of the cable car at Table Mountain; I am you
Girls with the skyest blue of eyes and the darkest skinFor Cape Colored allied for realizing we’re African
For all my cousins back home, the strength of mommy’s backbone
The length of which she went for raising, sacrificing her own

The pain of not reflecting the range of our complexionsFor rubber pellet scars on Auntie Elna’s back I march
Fist raised caramel shinin in all our glory
For Mauritius, St, Helena; my blood is a million stories
Winnie for Joan and for Edie, for Norma, Leslie, Ndidi
For Auntie Betty, for Melanie; all the same family
Fiona, Jo Burg, complex of mixed girls

For surviving thru every lie they put into us now
The world is yours and I swear I will stand focused
Black girls, raise up your hands; the world should clap for us
My mama said life would be so hard
Growin up days as a black girl scarred
In so many ways though we’ve come so far
They just know the name they don’t know the pain
So please hold your heads up high

Don’t be ashamed of yourself know I

Will carry it forth til the day I die
They just know the name they don’t know the pain, black girl.

-Talib Kweli