When People Are Saltier About Messages Than Burial Soil

Fresh from Fourth of July BBQs, family reunions, road trips, beach days and the like, many black people in the U.S. grieve another person, another black man, another father and partner gone too soon after a deadly encounter with police. The facts, opinions, anecdotes, and reports trickle in, including the announcement that the DeBLMpartment of Justice will conduct an investigation. As a culture we know how this tends to play out.

This experience of reeling from situations we would not know about but for the reels of cellular devices, and citizen journalists and good neighbors who use them, has become commonplace.

By now, most people have heard the name Alton Sterling. They know Baton Rouge police killed him in front of a convenience store, a store where he and the owner had cultivated a relationship in which Sterling had permission to sell CDs outside the establishment.

Many have seen continual video loops chronicling Sterling’s demise. Others decided to read the stories, but not watch the video because the collective trauma of state-sanctioned violence against black people has become too much to bear.

Police have killed 558 people this year in the U.S, according the Counted, a database hosted by the Guardian. The Washington Post reported that American police have killed 122 black people in the U.S. this year.

Late last week a Change.org petition was started against activist and actor Jesse Williams. Cyber signees called for Williams’ termination from Grey’s Anatomy after Williams used his humanitarian award speech at the BET Awards to lambast institutional racism. As I type this, more than 19,000 people have signed.

Williams’ speech was an opportunity to, as folks say, make it plain. He said that the award he received was not for him, but was for “the civil rights attorneys, the struggling parents, the families, the teachers, the students that are realizing that a system built to divide and impoverish and destroy us cannot stand if we do.”

He continued. “It’s kind of basic mathematics – the more we learn about who we are and how we got here, the more we will mobilize.” Williams decried disparate treatment of black people and eerily-yet-predictably foreshadowed Sterling’s death.

“Now, what we’ve been doing is looking at the data and we know that police somehow manage to de-escalate, disarm and not kill white people every day,” Williams said. “So what’s going to happen is we are going to have equal rights and justice in our own country or we will restructure their function and ours.”

It is frightening to think, and sobering to know, many people so resented Williams’ speech that they wanted his lucrative and prominent position taken. They were more disturbed that he had a safe space to speak at a BET show, a receptive audience, and that he struck a chord with millions than they were invested in uprooting the realities that motivated his speech. They were salty about the message, hating on the messenger and choose to rationalize the personhood politics and policies that keep America facing mounting black bodies.

One must ask whether the immutability of race will continue muting people in power. What of the capacity for justice? Or is it really just us?

I Spent Spring Break in Pre-Embargo Lift Cuba


Cuba has interested me since fourth grade. I’m a Floridian. My first boyfriend was half-Cuban. He never wanted to talk about Cuba or the individualized and collective circumstances that led to his mother fleeing to Florida. And with the American economic embargo spanning several decades, Cuba has often seemed closest to and farthest from the United States.

Back to fourth grade. My teacher was terrified of anything Cuba. During a geography discussion, a classmate asked a question about the island. She stumbled through some response. She also apologized to the air, raised her hands and said she hoped the classroom wasn’t bugged. It was weird and above my nine year old brain.

As a law student, now closer to the finish line than to the beginning, Cuba is of interest for other reasons. The country’s constitution is beautifully written. The outright acknowledgment of being a diversified people—and celebrating that fact in its law—resonated with my “cotton black” self and global aspirations.

There’s also the fact that Cuba has routinely honored political asylum by keeping freedom fighters free, and allowing them to live in Cuba. The nation has disregarded pressures from westerners who would better serve their constituents with education funding and summer job programs than expired calls for extradition. (We love you, Assata. We also love you, Cubanos who transport her throughout the island and protect her.)

Anyway, insert Mississippi College School of Law. Their law school has had a spring break Cuba study abroad program for two years. For street cred’s sake, I Googled spring study abroad programs and applied well before President Obama announced, last December, the American and Cuban goal of normalizing relations between the nations.

This spring break, I was blessed to visit Cuba with MC Law and study comparative constitutional law with students from The Sip (Mississippi), Washington state, New York and Arizona. Our professor, a J.D./Ph.D, kept substantive and philosophical queries on deck. My classmates represented different walks of life. The academic portion was squared away.

The cultural component that remained was satisfied and exceeded expectations. Cubanos could not have made me feel more welcome. We had substantive and random conversations. Shoutout to the men whose response to my Floridian origin was a conversation about rappers Flo Rida, Wiz Khalifa and Tyga.

Cuban artists sold handcrafted pieces, spoke passionately and told jokes. One vendor, a soft-spoken woman with blond hair, lured me into her booth with decidedly African art. She reminded me that March 8 was International Women’s Day. We took a picture together.

The natives patiently listened when I fumbled through Spanglish 2.5, apologized and grasped for cognates. They seemed to appreciate sincere effort and cultural humility. When I wasn’t talking, or too close to loud westerners, they thought I was a native. Nope. Just cappuccino skinned with an affinity for colorful clothes and people.

Of course, our trip was not free of the Obnoxious Gringo American stereotype, as such arose in the form of a loud man who said things like “Book. You know, boo-kuh?” True story, cross my heart.

Some natives seemed as excited to try their English on me as I was to try my Spanish on them. Others saw my struggle and threw lifelines. One vendor, whose cadence sounded more Houston than Havana, laughingly said, “I speak English,” and negotiated a fair price with me for a knitted shirt.

Our study abroad group ate frijoles soaked in goddess tears, rice simmered in utopia and drank mojitos that never seemed to run out. We heard people say they love America. Some shouted “liberty” when we were around.

One night, we walked for an hour through areas our bus carefully avoided and saw inside tiny, tidy homes with colorful decorations, rousing discussions, barbershops and family and friends.

Cuba reminded me of the diversity of people of color. Some looked undeniably white. Others looked black. Others’ traits skimmed from many people, like the copper skinned boy with brown eyes and bright red, straight hair who skateboarded past us.

I did notice an unspoken colorism. Whiter looking, mixed or brown skinned people with long hair or light eyes often greeted tourists, handled money and held prominent positions. The people with the dark cocoa skin, dark eyes, broad features and coarse hair often worked service jobs. Many live in other parts of the island.

In critical race circles, the light-is-right ideology in Latin America is called pigmentocracy. It’s an iteration of colonialism seen across the globe.

The trip, however, was still amazing. We visited the home of Jose Fuster, an artist widely regarded as the Caribbean Picasso. His relative and I shared a moment, and fist bump, because we both have tailbone length dreadlocks that represent our eight years with matted hair.

Our group visited a beach. We saw musicians. We met an American diplomat. We met a Cuban international lawyer. Both were women, just saying. We learned that wifi was expensive and not always dependable, so we ate meals where everyone made eye contact and listened instead of scanning phones for updates.

Our tour guide bridged the gap between the natives and us. We saw lots of pretty things, and areas with infrastructures reflecting a need for progress into contemporary times. We saw the old school vehicles that baffle international scholars, as Cuba has patents and secrets that keep classic things as good as new.

Hopefully, as relations improve the US will respect what Cuba brings to the table and their willingness to be autonomous and unbothered. The nation that expects everybody else to bow down, whether American exceptionalism ideas are warranted or not (hello, #blacklivesmatter), should learn to kiss their ring.

Ultimately, I am not a Cuba expert. Or a legal expert. Yet. But, I opened myself up to Cuban and Cuban American people who shared more with me than I could ever record.

I chopped it up with a Canadian Millennial who shared that many Canadians and Europeans say Cuba will remain wonderful as long as lazy Americans who don’t eat real food or appreciate real culture can’t get universal access. As it stands now, Americans can only visit Cuba if they satisfy at least one of the enumerated reasons to visit. (Reasons include having family members there, cultural exchanges or academic purposes.)

This Cuba trip felt like an appetizer,  one that reminded me of my family’s time spent in Mexico and Costa Rica. But, it was also distinct.

Thankfully, global good faith is afoot. As seen through President Barack Obama’s handshake with Cuban president Raul Castro at Nelson Mandela’s funeral, global politics are becoming more inclusive. We need others. And others need us. America can also remove Cuba from the state sponsors of terrorism list amirite?, but that is for another day.

For what it’s worth, a study abroad classmate told paladar employees, “Here’s to the end of the embargo!” The Cuban restaurant, he said, erupted into cheers.

Here’s What Happened When I Had My Ancestry Traced

People are pregnant, married, moving up the corporate ladder, doing crossfit, getting tatted, and I’m over here finding out about ancestors.

It wouldn’t be summertime if I didn’t put myself on a mission. Sometimes it’s cardio. Sometimes it’s cooking. Often, it’s reading enough to be able to jump into most conversations, survive, and contribute.

I mainly ventured into the ancestry rabbit hole because of history. Whenever I asked my parents where Ancestor So-and-So was from, it was always some southern state in the U.S. I’ve seen pictures of ancestors whose phenotypes prominently display Africa. I’ve seen some that made me my cock my head to the side.

But Massa ‘Nem is not an ethnicity. And the USA is relatively new. I wanted a deeper tie to an original region. I am usually elated to be a black American, but I also periodically feel displaced here. This feeling has arisen when people speak a native tongue, as slavery stripped my ancestors of ours.

Ancestry tracing is gaining popularity. It is beneficial for people who were adopted. Some do it to find out about possible illnesses. Some do it to boast their multi-racialism. Some trace to prove their lineage is uninterrupted. Dude, do you. Technology supplements aspects of our identity that institutions can erase.

This experience was deep. While I identify with the cultural and political power of blackness and see Africa as the motherland, I was pretty open to whatever appeared on the report.

Then there’s the social aspect of identity in contemporary America. In our post-everything society, where we are actually post-very little, there’s often a schism between foreign (a.k.a. “exotic”) and typical identity.

Personally, this results in folks expecting and wanting me to be spicy black. They want some performative drum circle/humanities 201/geography 301/passport-y black lady display because of my Swahili and Arabic first name, hip-length dreadlocks, rudimentary reggae knowledge and interests beyond my backyard.

People stay asking where I’m “from-from.” For those who don’t know, saying it twice helps people know it’s real. We all know the difference between liking a dude and like-liking him, right?

Apparently, I’m Jamaican. St. Lucian. Dominican. From St. Croix. Bahamian. I’ve also been Eritrean, Egyptian and Somali, although never at the same time. A Colombian guy seemed underwhelmed by the fact that I was born in a city where people wear more camo than ethnic garb.

All I can be is who I am. I am cotton black. Yet, I try to have a sense of humor because everything has degrees. A common Imani inquiry for the from-from set is, “What? Cotton don’t excite y’all?”

In all seriousness, family is exciting. Making connections. Globalism.
Feeling included by a place and its people.

That’s where 23andme.com comes into play. I researched ancestry-tracing services and decided this was the one for me. Plus, if it’s good enough for Henry Louis Gates Jr., I’m just saying.

It cost $99, not including shipping. I registered a profile, paid, spit in the kit, mailed off my specimen and waited for results, which came pretty timely.

My immediate family and I discussed everything. They had no objections. Additionally, they know I blog. They consented to me sharing the story about our ancestry. They agreed it would be neat to leave the option open for 23andMe users who share our genetic info to connect.

Then 23andMe emailed me, saying relatives were online. Y’all. We have all the cousins. Most of them are black. Some are mixed. Some are white. I started introducing myself, wondering if they would be welcoming. I don’t want anything from them, other than to get to know them as people and see where our ancestors intersected. So far, everything’s going well.

If you’re only here for the breakdown, it is in the photo below.
Note: We are also .8% Neanderthal. Should I beat my chest for cave-dwelling foremothers or nah?

Ultimately, the results make sense. A long time ago, my ancestors were involved in the trafficking of people. Most were the trafficked. Some were the trafficking.

Despite these layers, my cousins still want to connect. For that, this mission is accomplished.


Edited to add: 23andMe says that as their algorithm improves, it’s possible for ancestral reports to change. Mine did, a little, so I posted the most recent one too.