On our first warm Saturday of spring, the neighborhood thrums in the palm of a sub woofer beat. My part of Brooklyn is a Black-chic neighborhood in the heart of Bed-Stuy, halfway between Bedford Ave. and Stuyvesant St. Down the block in front of the boarded up Home Depot with the murals of Black leaders on the side Malcolm X, Ol Dirty Bastard, Rosa Parks, Biggie and others bear witness to a knee high child, cherub chocolate cheeks and tight ear-length braids. She is bathed in the sun and the attention of her elders, who were deep in conversation until she commanded their attention with an awesome kid dance. A few storefronts away someone is playing Kevin Little’s popular (and timeless) single Turn Me On. The little girl pumps her fists toward the ground in rhythm with her feet, bums and (roughly) to the beat of the song. Let me hold you/Girl caress my body/you got me going crazy/turn me on/turn me on. The men praise and clap for her as if she is fucking Baryshnikov, a dance prodigy.
Hey, watch us! Two kids playing ball stop me in my tracks. Ok, cool, show me. This is serious business. I’m on my way to a meeting at the brunch spot, but it’s only a stop-light away and I should make time for this, it’d be worth it. Kid 1 bends his legs deep and throws the ball “granny style” (do they still call it that?) between his legs and in a wide arc toward his target, Kid 2. Kid 2 runs and lunges for the ball unsuccessfully and it lands unceremoniously in the garden of our mutual neighbor. I shift my gaze from the ball back to Kid 1 and then Kid 2, who grins, unmistakably pleased with himself. I shrug my shoulders, shoot him a thumbs up and tell them, Good job guys! Another young girl throws down her violin case and peels off her purple peacoat in a dash to join the ball game; her mother’s voice chases behind her, Young Miss, you better give me your things and especially those glasses you begged me for so that you save me spanking you when you break them!
I arrive at the restaurant and think, Yes, this is my life, I’m here to meet with someone cool that I admire and we will talk ‘business’, which composes of us visioning to create programming that will fulfill unmet needs of folks in our communities. I order the turkey breakfast sausages that are my favorite reason for brunch here, because I don’t eat pork and love sausage. I make small talk; she has recently taken up marathons and I ask her about how she is affected by the Boston Marathon bombing. This is my version of small talk, which is hideous, but she’s mercifully nonplussed. She tells me that she ran a marathon the day before. She has a healthy dose of fear and reverence but, she says, when you figure all the lives that are lost around the world and in our own neighborhoods every day, you can’t let one random event like that paralyze you with fear.
North American centrism and exceptionalism – the way that North American people understand the world around them and their experience as inherently more meaningful – means that most people don’t see the Boston Bombing as an opportunity to come to terms with how our own governments met out this kind of damage in other people’s communities, as well as how this bad foreign policy makes us more vulnerable to vengeance and vindication at home. We don’t use these opportunities to talk about how the violence of U.S. international relations is not a violence that is the sole problem of foreign actors. We don’t use this event as an opportunity to break down the fallacy of The Foreign Other. We don’t internalize that our communities lack homogeneity and that lack of homogeneity is turned against us only when we refuse to embrace and address it.
I come from a place that is extraordinarily peaceful while hosting regular eruptions of violence. India. In every village, town and city there is a temple profound enough to make you weep. And there will be another symbol of a massive indignity to human life: a rotting limb swarmed with flies peaking out from underneath a blanket that drivers veer to avoid in the bustling traffic, rifles roaming the streets on the backs of quick tempered police officers. Like many Sikhs in the 70’s and 80’s, my parents fled to Canada from genocide of the Indira Gandhi Government. But I was not raised in ignorance of how my family lived on the other side of the world. The assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards and the subsequent Anti-Sikh Riots were part of our household and our community in suburban Toronto. One of my uncles is an Indian military officer and the Sikh military was split in rebellion against and for protection of the State.
Another one of my cousins helped stockpile weapons for Sikh militia on the the family farm. He fled too. He arrived at Toronto Pearson airport from Paris on false identity papers. My mothers father, my Nanna Ji, reached out to my father for help. My father had the most experience in this country. He married a woman for immigration and was a student at the University of British Columbia. They eventually divorced and he returned to India, got married to my mother. She was pregnant with my brother shortly after their wedding. My father returned to Canada, Toronto this time and with better English skills, when my brother was born in India. My father sponsored the immigration of my mother and my new born brother, who he had yet to meet.
Over the next several years he sponsored the immigration of many of our extended family members: three of my mother’s sisters, one of his own brothers and both my mothers parents. On my Nanna Ji’s request, he went to Toronto Pearson and negotiated the release of my Sikander Bir Ji, my cousin, into his custody. He argued that if he was returned to India he faced sudden death or, if returned to the authorities in Paris, he would be lost in the system since he spoke no English or French and knew no one there. Years later, he similarly negotiated the return of his own nephew to his custody after he escaped from a Pakistani jail where he served ten years and faced a death sentence for a non-violent hijacking that he participated in as a teenager in the Sikh sovereignty movement that exploded in reaction to the genocide. We vaguely inherited the violence that happened overseas along with the constant appreciation of escaping it as an every day experience.
On July 1st one year I walked around my Detroit neighborhood with my roommate to enjoy the fireworks show. We lived in Mexicantown amongst folks who are not spooked by the use of explosives. Cannons line the street and careen into the air as we stroll past, men handle the rockets with their bare hands and children squeals nearly drown out the sirens of the firecrackers lifting off into the air. There is a steady boom of fireworks blooming in the sky, punctuated by the more piercing sound of the Detroit tradition of busting shots into the air in celebration. My roommate, a Palestinian who’s family was forced to migrate to Jordan, turned to me and remarks that in Palestine, she imagines, some nights the sky is similarly pockmarked with explosives, that this same soundtrack causes people to run for cover and huddle together in fear. She says she wonders how folks with post-traumatic stress disorder from bomb attacks cope during these nights of celebration in Detroit.
A lot of guys in Detroit joined the military and many of them see combat in Iraq and/or Afghanistan. Recruiters roam the halls of the dilapidated school buildings like heat-seeking missiles. For many of the local young people, joining the army is the best hope to access higher education and prospects for employment are slim, especially since they are targeted by police on minor drug offenses. I date a man like this who came back from a tour in Iraq and takes too much ecstasy. He unloads some of his vast burden of stories on me in the night, instead of sleeping. Our affair is necessarily brief. I don’t know how to hold his trauma and I need my sleep.
I tell the woman I am brunching with about an argument I had with someone over Christmas. Namely, I tried to explain to him that many people throughout the world do not give a fuck about Christmas. We have our own holidays, I told him, and some folks have only distant and disinterested connection to North American media depictions of Santa Claus and candy canes. The worst part of the argument was not that he didn’t believe me but that he actually thought the mere act of making this argument was me being contentious. He was so incredulous about my challenging the universality of Christmas, of his experience, that he didn’t even consider I could be right. He was so sure that his experience was accurate and reflective of people everywhere, even while confronted with the knowledge that people have different religions, rituals and celebrations. This is instrumental to colonization, the drive for one-way cultural reproduction; I wonder what the world would be like if we imagined Indian culture as the center, people smeared in Holi colors and streets lit up in Diwali diyas annually. Looks much better than Talking Elmo rampages and mounting gift giving debt.
I want to shake the Man Who Loves Christmas Too Much. I want to tell him how 9/11 is taught differently around the world without insulting him. I want to tell him – my brunch buddy interjects – P.S. It’s not about you.