Thursday, January 23, 2014

When being Black is Tragic


My cousins family buried him last week. He was my second cousin and leaves behind a wife and two small children. I think my cousin, his father, said it best on his Facebook today when he posted, "I asked God why and He said, because I am God!!!"

It reminded me, of course, of Qur'an, 2:30, when God introduced the concept of human beings to the angels:

2:30 (Asad) AND LO! Thy Sustainer said unto the angels: "Behold, I am about to establish upon earth one who shall inherit it." They said: "Wilt Thou place on it such as will spread corruption thereon and shed blood -whereas it is we who extol Thy limitless glory, and praise Thee, and hallow Thy name?" [God] answered: "Verily, I know that which you do not know."

Those were the words of a father, a man of God, struggling to understand why his son was taken away from him, from his mother, from his wife and his children. Those were words of a father, a man of God, who has dedicated his life to preaching a congregation in the way of God and is facing perhaps the hardest thing he ever will in his life.

He is a father who had prominence in his community to call for action and justice sooner than the families of other such slain black men were ever able to and still, the case is wide open. We still don't know.

And yet, so many other black men were killed similarly, senselessly, that week, last year, whatever. I don't know the stats, but there are many, and most of them (like all crimes, regardless of race) were intraracial crimes.

So-called "black-on-black" violence. So-called because most white people are killed by other white people, yet we don't call that white-on-white.

I get tired of the lame-o analyses, "I don't see black people marching when a black person kills another black person." Whoever says that doesn't know any black people and doesn't care to know anything about black people. We are deeply saddened, outraged and crying out for justice each time one of our own is killed. Will we be perhaps louder when there is a case like Trayvon Martin that harkens back to uglier times in the history of our nation? Yes, but that doesn't mean we are silent when our people are killing our own.

And calling these black people who have been killed "my people" and "my own" resonates with me even more now. This was my cousin who was killed. Months before, another one of my cousins killed someone. The cycle of violence, unfortunately, is full circle in my family.

In the wake of MLK's birthday and my realization about how little about the man I know, my realization that school's now been out for me for over a year and half now and anything new I learn I'm really going to have to teach myself, in the wake of my counseling patients who have lost their loved ones in similar, violent ways, I've arrived at a new state of being.

Sometimes, too many times and in too many ways, being black in this country is tragic. My cousin's case is a prime example. He was a man far removed from the streets, well-grounded in his faith, an honest man who worked for a living and lived to serve God. But he was robbed and killed in a neighborhood where he was the more likely target because he was black, by other black people who recognize that our lives are more dispensable in the public eye. Killed over a few bills and the chance to run free to rob another day. Tragic. He married his wife and was a present and loving father and now his children will grow up like so many black children in this country, without a father. Tragic.

So my new state of being? I recognize that being black in this country is often tragic and I want to do my part to help people grieve through those tragedies and to prevent those tragedies, if I can. No one else can do this but us. And when I say us, I mean my family, I mean black people. This is my purpose. This is why I'm still here. And I will work until the day I'm gone from this world at it.

Because the tragedy is greater and more far reaching than innocent lives (and not-so innocent lives) lost to crime. It's greater rates of prematurity, it's our children falling behind in school, it's the poverty of our schools, it's the achievement gap, it's the failings of affirmative action, it's lower university enrollment, it's failure to graduate, it's vacuums in mentorship. It's the prison-industrial complex, it's the war on drugs, it's red-lining and its legacy, it's post-racial assumptions. It's poverty. It's illness, it's greater mortality rates. It's poorer health for black women, our mothers, and it's the multifactorial loss of black men, our fathers.

As a black female physician who plans to do my own part to eat away at the social determinants of health, I plan to do my part, insha'Allah. Because if others are going to disregard human life, then I should be one to revere it.

Why would God place humans on earth, knowing our tendency for killing and corruption? Why are we here? No one has the answer. We are left to the mercy of the All Knowing, and we accept that mercy or we deny it.

I don't know why we're here, but I know it's not just for us to inflict pain on each other. With the potential for great evil there is an even greater potential for great good, and I pray to be one of those vehicles for good.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

When Facebook is Tragic


A few years ago, one of my distant cousins added me on Facebook.

Come to find out, he wasn't that distant, at least by my family's standards. He was one of my mother's first cousin. His late father was a bishop and my great uncle, one of my grandmother's 13+ siblings (the plus because she had some half siblings and I never quite know where they were in the count). My memories of this uncle were attending his church at the 1996 family reunion of my grandmother's family.

It's customary for black family reunions to conclude on Sunday, with a church service. And there are so many pastors and preachers and bishops in my extended family, it made sense that it would be at one of the family patriarch's church.

I remember taking a big family picture during that family reunion. At that time, everyone but one of my mother's younger sisters who died in a car accident years before, was alive. I was 11 years old. I was surrounded in people dressed mainly in white, I think, it must have been after church and everyone was dressed in pastels after a summer service. As we were all together, taking that picture that day, I had a virtual out-of-body experience, one of the few times in my life I had one of those. It's what I think heaven must feel like. I was surrounded by generations and generations of my family, my blood, knowing that everyone there was related to me or married to one of my relatives. It was magic, the sun was shining brightly, I didn't have a mosquito bump to scratch on my body, and nothing could have been more perfect than that moment we took a huge portrait.

My cousin and his son were probably in that picture with me. That's probably the only picture we have together.

Anyway, this cousin who friended me on Facebook was a pastor himself, like his late father and his late brother. I didn't remember him specifically, but he knew we were family. I accepted his friendship and proceeded to see all of his updates on facebook. I think we have been Facebook friends for two years. He'll post Bible quotes, posted the progress on the building of his new church, posted many, many pictures of his wife, who he is obviously crazy about, and post pictures of his children. He had two children, a son and a daughter. His son was married with two children, also a son and daughter.

I saw pictures of his grandchildren accompanying him at church, saw updates of his children preaching at his church, saw their family pictures, saw when his daughter's boyfriend proposed, saw pictures of his son with his children. Theirs were just a part of the many smiling faces and family antics that graced my Facebook on a daily basis.

 Seeing how perfect my cousin's family looked, I did wonder about those studies that state that Facebook actually makes us more depressed. No one uploads unsmiling pictures or talks about their struggles that much. That is against social media etiquette, after all, to paint a depressing picture. If you have issues and need help, you seek help in real life and don't bring everyone else down. Facebook is not a venue for you to seek counseling.

So what are you left with, if that's the attitude? Happy, smiling pictures, children with grandparents, videos of cats, pregnant bellies, diplomas, that kind of thing.

It's enough to make me, without an engagement ring on my hand, without my wedding pictures, without a pregnant belly, without babies to play with or grandchildren to give my parents feel a little bit behind at best.

And then, Saturday night, as I was at my SO's house scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed for the day. My SO was out with a friend and I was supposed to go pick him up in a few minutes. In 15 minutes to be exact, so I had time. I scrolled through the newsfeed and saw my cousin's status.

His son had been robbed, shot and killed that morning, and he was asking for prayers.

Immediately, I stopped breathing. I stopped breathing, and I got the same burning, hot taste in the back of my mouth that I do when confronted with my specific phobias, those that I cannot pronounce because it will cause that feeling. But this wasn't one of my specific phobias. I don't have a phobic reaction to thinking of my family being murdered, because it usually does not happen.

My cousin was killed on Saturday, and I found out on Facebook.

I couldn't believe it. I wanted to believe that it was a ill-begotten joke. I wanted to believe that it was maybe like that South African pastor who convinced his congregation to eat grass. In a flash I thought it was maybe my cousin speaking the unspeakable to see how his congregation would come together to support him. But it went on for painful seconds too long. I saw the responses, I knew.

And I couldn't believe it.

I scrolled back through my cousins pictures to see where the entire family had just done a photo shoot weeks before during the Christmas season. And there my cousin was, with his parents and sister, with his sister alone, with his own wife and kids. And that burning continued to drip down my throat. I had to swallow it.

My cousin, who I maybe met once in real life and didn't remember, whose picture I saw at least every week, scrolling through my newsfeed, didn't exist anymore.

He was a good man, provided for his family, was an active member in his father's church, was a believer, and he was. He's not anymore.

I told my cousin that we would pray for his family and that I would pass it on. I called my parents next, since they do not have a Facebook.

I feared picking my SO up that night. I prayed heavily that I keep my focus. I didn't want to die in a car accident. I felt this way because life felt so much more precarious when such a God-fearing young man was murdered so suddenly, his life ending in medias res. I dreamed about my cousin and how his death must have been all night that night. I dreamed of him being given time to run away, him running frantically before being shot in a field.

But this was the city, and there were no fields. He was called into the hospital early to help with a transplant in the wee hours of the morning. His car was in the shop so he took the bus to get there. On his way to the bus stop, someone robbed him, shot him in the chest, and left him for dead. And he died.

Facebook is not the same for me anymore. I can't read an article about calculating your likelihood of dying this year that was posted by one of my friends. Pictures of people's families seem dark now. Like, anyone could die at any time. And life seems more precarious now, even more than it did for me before. As I spoke to my SO about the possibility of continuing to work in inner city community health centers, he cautioned me, saying that he didn't want me to not come home one day.

And usually I would have scoffed at this comment, that I would be fine. But one of our MAs did push an intruder out of her car one day as she was leaving work. And I do walk to a pretty desolate parking lot at the end of work each day. And there have been murders in my neighborhood...

So what happens when Facebook is tragic? You see that life goes on and people are unaware and woefully unable to be empathic when someone loses a family member. And it hurts. There are little bits of light, but every time I see a post from that family, it's like darkness. It's pain, it's grief beyond measure that will not be captured in pictures posted on anyone's wall because no one posts pictures of people crying, of death, of bodies, of blood, of sorrow, of mourning.

And I find myself grieving the death of family, a man I would not have known of if his father had not friended me two years ago on Facebook.

And if God doesn't provide?


This title is an allusion to yet another song, this one in Portuguese. It is the pop version of a type of samba called partido alto by Chico Buarque, so titled.

Partido alto is witty, provocative and involves plays on words, as I understand. The song "Partido Alto" taps into this, and its chorus is an elaborate word play that, upon hearing it, I found brazen but could not help singing it.

The actual lyrics are as follows:

Diz que Deus dará,
Não vou duvidar,ô nega
E se Deus não dá,
Como é que vai ficar, ô nega?

Diz que deu, diz que dá,
E se Deus negar, ô nega
Eu vou me indignar e chega,
Deus dará, Deus dará

Works a lot better than the English translation; I'm not even sure how you would make this as fun in English, actually (a small amount of poetic license taken in the translation here):

They say that God will provide
I'm not going to doubt that, my dear
And if God doesn't give
How are we going to end up, my dear?

They say he gave, they say he gives
And if God denies us, my dear,
I'll become outraged and that's it
God will give, God will give

First of all, I've always found it hilarious that variations on the word "black" are used as a term of endearment in Latin America. Light skin children were called "negrito/a" when I was in the DR, and "nega" in Brazil is a term of endearment for one's wife, girlfriend or close female friend, regardless of race, but very commonly used among white people, and it definitely comes from "negra." So, essentially, it'd be like everyone in America said "nigga" as a term of endearment...or at least in a similar way that black people do.

Talk about how language shapes one's view of the world!

But I share that lyric to share actually something quite serious, at least for me. I open it with a jovial note. Tell me, how would a Muslim interpret this lyric? Would a Muslim even let these lyrics cross their lips?

On my playlist on my iPod, I skip over (but interestingly have not yet deleted) the song that ends with "A vezes tento creer mas não consigo. E todo um total insensatez..." Which translates, "Sometimes I try to believe, but I'm not able to. It's all complete nonsense."

Muslims, am I right? We are, by definition, believers. Not only are we believers, but we are submitters. I cannot let such words of disbelief pass into my psyche, not in the form of song, of verse, of speech, of thought, of image, nothing. I reject those lyrics. This is why some people consider music haram. Where do you draw the line between beautiful instrumentation and harmless lyrics to the very harmful. It will sneak up on you. And see how I've memorized that Portuguese lyric against my will! It is in my mind and undermining my faith and I would have been better off never having heard that lyric, astaghfirullah...

...or would I be?

I admit, I do intend to remove that song from my iPod, but I rarely listen to my iPod anymore and haven't changed songs on it for the last 3 years or so. I am a little tongue-in-cheek up there but I'm serious about taking care about the forms of media I ingest and how it can have an impact on our person. Disbelief is not my modus operandi, so I don't consume it.

However, songs like "Partido Alto" walk that line of inappropriateness. If I were my former self, actually, I would stop listening to this song, too, and try to purge it from my memory. To imply, ever, that God doesn't provide? Haram in the making, right there.

The song's protagonist is a person living in poverty, lamenting their position and poking fun at themselves. Their faith is fickle at best. God will provide...but what if He doesn't? What are we going to do? Well, if he doesn't provide, I'm going to be pissed...

But I still listen to this song. Why?

Because God has provided amply for me, more than I ever ask for and above what I've ever wanted. But there are so many in this world who are struggling, good people who are constant in prayer, better than I, people all around the world, burying children that they aren't able to feed, watched them die...

My upbringing and faith-base taught me that God provides amply for them, too. But having experienced individuals and families in desperation as I have as a physician now, you definitely feel like there are times when God isn't providing.

In a witty way, a silly song captures fleeting desperation, the lack of understanding of the world we all have and are at varying levels of wanting to admit it. We do not know why we were put here, don't and will not understand the master plan.

As long as God continues to provide me with all that he does, I'll continue to realize the purpose of my help others through life. I believe that's why we're all help each other out through this maze. And if God were "no longer to provide?" I hope someone would do the same for me, whatever is left of me.

Because there is enough resource, wealth and plenty that have been provided to some of us, that nobody's baby has to starve.