The number four uptown train halted at the 125th stop. The doors to the subway train swooshed open for my best friend, Val and me. All I could see was chocolate and caramel brothers and sisters. It is like watching the train hit the track and the spark set off when both connect.
I was home. Harlem USA, known as Uptown, Harlem Niu York City, New York. My home two years ago, my home for six years of my life before moving to Los Angeles, a city of chocolate-- but not the kind
we make in Harlem. A place that armchair travel agents call dangerous; and like dairy products , have lactose intolerant the equivalent for culture would be beauty intolerant.
This place where no matter how you look in the morning or how you feel the elders never fails to wish you a ‘Good morning Beautiful!.’ A place where I can forget my change for Chinese take-out and Andy the owner would say, “Next time.” And when my family came to visit, would give us more dishes than we had ordered to ensure family was taken care of... “Like we do in China” he would say.
Harlem is the place of --when I had to pull all-nighters , and get back at 3 or 4 in the morning,-- the brothers that were homeless would watch to see that I got into my building safely... I can still remember them saying, “You better run girl, ain't no time to waste at this time of night.”
I lived on the bottom of a hill on 144th and Riverside and would have to run to the bottom of the hill. Carlos is down there making sure I get there safely. As soon as I reached the bottom, Carlos would yell up to Anthony “Yes, our girl is home safe and sound.” Only then would Carlos wish me sweet dreams and close my door behind me.
This is my Harlem. The Harlem that molded, empathized, burned, built, and forgave me. The home of Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Sean P Diddy Combs, the Harlem Renaissance contributors Zora Neale Hurston, and Langston Hughes. Home to the least publicized but most influential speech delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. When he stood up against the Vietnam War and fought for peace and justice.
This return to Harlem comes as a trip provided by WAVE (Women Advancing a Vision of Empowerment) and for the CSW (Commission on the Status of Women) at the United Nations. An experience I am deeply grateful for. This is the work I live to work and work to live for-- documenting the stories which directly influence Oceania. I am honored to work side by side with women who master the craft of media making and who at the same time seek truth in storytelling.
As we surfaced from the underground train onto 125th street /Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, it was night and day from our hotel in Murray Hill on 30th Street and Lexington. The disparities of class and race hit you the same time as the 101 bus west bound stops in front of you.
I am showing Val my neighborhood. This is the first time she has been to Niu York and her grand visit to Harlem. We climb the stairs of the bus with twelve and thirteen year olds, younger African-American sisters and brothers-- loud, warm, boisterous… The young boy in front of me asks the bus driver to ride for free. At first the bus driver says ‘no’ and then makes comments about him riding for free in the listening range of those closer to the front of the bus. I am behind him in line, in after school traffic.
The bus is packed with neighborhood locals and heroes of working class titles, students; and brushed with young mothers and grandmothers. I follow the young students in their school uniforms to the very back of the bus. There are just enough chairs for us and the remaining students stand.
I want to take photos of them to share with the youth back home in California. Quietly, I get up and walk to the students to introduce myself. I ask them permission to take their pictures. Shy and timid, they tell me to take a picture of the friend sitting next to them or across the way. They do not fight the pictures but giggle and point at each other. I tell them that I am from Cali and asked if they like football. “Have you seen the player Troy Polamalu, I asked, we are both from the Pacific.” The young man in front of me is Atrell. He is about 11 or 12 years old. The young boy on the other side of Atrell says he knows Troy because he watches football.
Atrell mutters curiously, “Do you get shot up out there?”
I attempt to make light of it and say,” I heard you get shot up out here…yes there is shooting out there. This happens everywhere. There is that, and more in Cali, as well as here.”
Atrell mentions that he also plays football. The other young man who watches the Steelers heartily claims that he has made eleven touch downs.
“How many have you made Atrell?” asks the friend.
“I've made eleven,” says another friend, over and over.
Yet, there is something deeper than this as Atrell knows and stares at me. He then leans over and says something to a girl. She tells him to back off because of his breath in front of everyone, he jesters back at her and tells her that her hair is nappy. I look at her as she defends herself in front of me. I tell her that her hair is beautiful and that she is beautiful.
“Nuh- uh” she replied grinning.
I smile back knowing that as I tell her this, it must come from her. I am reminded that as happy as I am to talk to youth and to be in Harlem the relevance of the panel I attended at the NGO CSW pertains directly to Atrell, Harlem, to Cali, and to me.
Before we made our way to Harlem we sat in and covered a session on Violence Against Women . A sister attorney from Columbia mentioned a woman who had a sword stuck through her vagina and was placed in the center of town for all to see. She was pregnant.
As we walked outside Val spoke to Dr. Rukshana Safi a medical doctor from the AADA (Agency for Assistance and of Afghanistan. While taking pictures I immediately witnessed the strife of Dr. Safi mentioning the limits she had as a doctor because of the lack of medical instruments and resources. The experience and advice of Dr. Rukshana Safi continues to be silenced despite the fact that she is a professional practitioner.
Just as we exited the elevator, I was compelled to speak to a woman who reminded me of my maternal and paternal grandmothers. Her name was Maryam Bibi, Chief Executive of Khwendo Kor (Sisters Home) in Pakistan. She is from the northern part of Pakistan, where the Taliban is alive she claims. I asked her if these sessions at the United Nations benefit her community back home. She said yes and no. She mentioned to me that families are uprooted and move from one tent city to another. People are murdered and many times they can't identify who died or who did the killing. Women’s voices are censored. Families live in poverty. Many women are bitten by snakes.
“I am grateful to meet other women here and to share with them about what is going on in Pakistan. I am grateful to hear about what you and other women are doing so that we may all help each other. Peace be with you. “
These are the stories that I thought I had shelved while meeting Atrell. But where Atrell and children are, there are mothers. Where there are women, there had been and will always have children.
The bus makes a few stops and many of the youth get off. Atrell remains with another friend, a girl. I ask Atrell what he likes to study at school and he whispers “science and math.”
The bus rolls to the curb at our stop of Seventh Avenue/Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and 125th. As we get off the bus a young boy the age of Atrell looks at me to hold the door open so he can sneak on to the back of the bus. I moved to the side so he could sneak by and made sure the door didn't close on him.
He is as invisible as I am in the most influential country in the world. When I attended the panel, I was more than certain that my commitment to social justice and my stand against violence if was strong before was now more alert and alive.
I do not deny the war zones of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and communities facing terror. I do not need to go there to understand the Atrells fighting to just get home; most likely hungry.
Where there are children there are women and where there are mothers there are children.
Atrell spoke to me about the shootings because he understands that Harlem is no different than Carson, Compton, Inglewood, and Long Beach. As a child there is no time to waste or an ego to hide. By his saying to his girlfriend that her hair is nappy represents a myriad of realities on the bus and in our homes that we are not worthy of beauty, that we are invisible.
When we examine poverty for example, the studies reported by the Asian Pacific American Legal Center are merely statistics that have no meaning for Atrell and many of our Oceania kids in Los Angeles.
In Los Angeles County, 21% of Pacific Islander and 17% of Asian families have three or more workers, compared to 9% of white families. Five API groups have public assistance rates higher than any other major racial or ethnic group: Cambodian, Laotian, Vietnamese, Tongan, and Samoan. More than half of the populations of six API groups were living below 200% of the poverty line: Hmong, Cambodians, Tongans, Bangladeshi, Laotians, and Samoans.
This is information we know--like taking a bus daily for Atrell, working with women in Pakistan, and Dr. Safi from Afghanistan, we know these stories all too well as we live it out in our war-torned communities of oppression.
Denying it, and combating it as truth is what we are challenged with. Just as women and men of global communities convene at the Church Center of the United Nations, so are the families of Atrell in Long Beach California; Nuku’alofa, Tonga; Poutasi, Samoa; Bougainville, Papua New Guinea; Suva, Fiji, Otara, New Zealand, Anchorage, Alaska, Provo Utah; East Palo Alto, California; and many other cities where we are making sense of our truths for our children and elders all the while keeping the lights on and jumping on the next bus.