Can I get a Whiteness?

Whiteness has not been my witness.  It has averted its eyes, its shards of denial making its way towards us, eyes shooting cursory glances, muted bullets.  Wanda Coleman called it, “The War of the Eyes”, warning us that to “Be forewarned is to be forearmed.”  It has turned a blind eye to the tax levied upon our skin.  Whiteness is denial, a false witness whose fruit is tainted as it falls to the ground, like the corpses of our ancestors.  Whiteness is not a witness, but is party to, abets in the consent of the desecration of our bodies.  Whiteness is a sheet conforming to the curvatures of coldness, the stillness of breath over the landscape of silence.  Our thoughts, to some, should be white, our tongues should be white, our sweat should be white.  The problem with this, of course, is that we, as people of color, cannot be white enough—never.  We are in a constant struggle to outwit the white, as sure as the whites of our eyes.  I think of all that white sweat glistening on the tomatoes and strawberries in the fields. Of course, the soil is white, or should be, in any case.  The indigenous bones have been dug up and tagged, absent of skin and white too.  Indigenous children who have come hundreds, thousands of miles across the landscape only to be pulled from their parents—will be matched with a nice white family, whose color, of course, is under the skin.  And, of course, there is a price to pay for this whiteness.  There was a popular, somewhat obnoxious song some years ago called why can’t I be you?  Perhaps the words can be bent to fit today’s decree: white, can I be you?  A great writer said that is country has never been white, and dared the country to prove it.  What is the future of this nation when its past has been shown—written in blood, bone—tragedy and, at times, brilliance.  It is, in the words of Orwell, “in front of your nose”.  The lynched bodies, the falsely accused, the testimony of those who were taken before their time all cry out to be heard. Where is  hope when hope is drowned, when it comes up for air only to be submerged in the comfort of ignorance, which is a false comfort—mistaken for security—that leads to the death of body, spirit and mind.  Who does one turn to?  To whom does one make an appeal for life?  Is there a 9-1-1 emergency line to call when the connections of communication to both past and present have been severed?  The answer will not be found in the White House—no surprise to us who consume minimal bites of truth from the spoon fed, tongue depressor apparatus known as the media.  Does the declension have a remedy when our healers, our vessels of wisdom are shattered by means perfected through the ages?  A nation intent on holding on to its hate, its legacy of hate at the cost of itself, of the sacred landscape upon which innumerable blessing flow; and the wall that that is supposed to cut off the flow, what are we to make of it?  If we remember one thing from the past is that one cannot escape it.  Walls are rendered, in the end, to rubble, collapsing under the weight of truth, guided by the human spirit—through the centuries.  And why build a wall—which, by the way, will likely be constructed by the labor of black and brown human beings—when there are walls abound.  The skin tax borne by people is one wall–among many walls–of the institutional variety, fortified by media, and notions that cling like an incurable disease.  The separation of parents from their children is not new to America.  What indignation was suffered to warrant such actions towards people who are the descendants of people who have lived in this land for centuries?  What is the justification of incarcerating children then parading them, some as young as 6 years old, in a courtroom to defend themselves?  Decades ago, a writer wrote of the “White problem”.  This problem has festered and is now imploding.  Dear White people, brown people have been good to you.  The Pilgrims would have perished if not for the godliness of the native people who showed them how to plant corn—how to survive in a land that they could not conceive, in the deep structure of their humanity, the possibility of owning.  In short, they would have dropped dead.  The harvest that has enriched this country, and its white descendants, came by way of brown hands—hands that, along with black hands and white hands—have created unprecedented wealth in this country.  The brown children being held, incarcerated, snatched from their parent’s arms, are descendants of the original people of this land we call America (Writer Oscar Penaranda, among others, however, stresses that America refers to an entire hemisphere and that, as people living in the United States, should be referred to as US Americans or United Statesians).  It is with these children—and children like them—that our hope lies.  To be true to this nation, this nation must look at itself and throw off the chains of white supremacy or superiority.  Those children are our hope.  Those young black men and women in the crosshairs of white supremacy are our hope—perhaps our only real hope. Our moment is here, it waits—it burns as the earth temperature rises.  It is time for whiteness to truly look at itself and to be a worthy witness to the truth.

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Can I get a Whiteness?

Whiteness has not been my witness.  It has averted its eyes, its shards of denial making its way towards us, eyes shooting cursory glances, muted bullets.  Wanda Coleman called it, “The War of the Eyes”, warning us that to “Be forewarned is to be forearmed.  It has turned a blind eye to the tax levied upon our skin.  Whiteness is denial, a false witness whose fruit is tainted as it falls to the ground, like the corpses of our ancestors.  Whiteness is not a witness, but is party to, abets in the consent of the desecration of our bodies.  Whiteness is a sheet conforming to the curvatures of coldness, the stillness of breath over the landscape of silence.  Our thoughts, to some, should be white, our tongues should be white, our sweat should be white.  The problem with this, of course, is that we, as people of color, cannot be white enough—never.  We are in a constant struggle to outwit the white, as sure as the whites of our eyes.  I think of all that white sweat glistening on the tomatoes and strawberries in the fields. Of course, the soil is white, or should be, in any case.  The indigenous bones have been dug up and tagged, absent of skin and white too.  Indigenous children who have come hundreds, thousands of miles across the landscape only to be pulled from their parents—will be matched with a nice white family, whose color, of course, is under the skin.  And, of course, there is a price to pay for this whiteness.  There was a popular, somewhat obnoxious song some years ago called why can’t I be you?  Perhaps the words can be bent to fit today’s decree: white, can I be you?  A great writer said that is country has never been white, and dared the country to prove it.  What is the future of this nation when its past has been shown—written in blood, bone—tragedy and, at times, brilliance.  It is, in the words of Orwell, “in front of your nose”.  The lynched bodies, the falsely accused, the testimony of those who were taken before their time all cry out to be heard. Where is  hope when hope is drowned, when it comes up for air only to be submerged in the comfort of ignorance, which is a false comfort—mistaken for security—that leads to the death of body, spirit and mind.  Who does one turn to?  To whom does one make an appeal for life?  Is there a 9-1-1 emergency line to call when the connections of communication to both past and present have been severed?  The answer will not be found in the White House—no surprise to us who consume minimal bites of truth from the spoon fed, tongue depressor apparatus known as the media.  Does the declension have a remedy when our healers, our vessels of wisdom are shattered by means perfected through the ages?  A nation intent on holding on to its hate, its legacy of hate at the cost of itself, of the sacred landscape upon which innumerable blessing flow; and the wall that that is supposed to cut off the flow, what are we to make of it?  If we remember one thing from the past is that one cannot escape it.  Walls are rendered, in the end, to rubble, collapsing under the weight of truth, guided by the human spirit—through the centuries.  And why build a wall—which, by the way, will likely be constructed by the labor of black and brown human beings—when there are walls abound.  The skin tax borne by people is one wall–among many walls–of the institutional variety, fortified by media, and notions that cling like an incurable disease.  The separation of parents from their children is not new to America.  What indignation was suffered to warrant such actions towards people who are the descendants of people who have lived in this land for centuries?  What is the justification of incarcerating children then parading them, some as young as 6 years old, in a courtroom to defend themselves?  Decades ago, a writer wrote of the “White problem”.  This problem has festered and is now imploding.  Dear White people, brown people have been good to you.  The Pilgrims would have perished if not for the godliness of the native people who showed them how to plant corn—how to survive in a land that they could not conceive, in the deep structure of their humanity, the possibility of owning.  In short, they would have dropped dead.  The harvest that has enriched this country, and its white descendants, came by way of brown hands—hands that, along with black hands and white hands—have created unprecedented wealth in this country.  The brown children being held, incarcerated, snatched from their parent’s arms, are descendants of the original people of this land we call America (Writer Oscar Penaranda, among others, however, stresses that America refers to an entire hemisphere and that, as people living in the United States, should be referred to as US Americans or United Statesians).  It is with these children—and children like them—that our hope lies.  To be true to this nation, this nation must look at itself and throw off the chains of white supremacy or superiority.  Those children are our hope.  Those young black men and women in the crosshairs of white supremacy are our hope—perhaps our only real hope. Our moment is here, it waits—it burns as the earth temperature rises.  It is time for whiteness to truly look at itself and to be a worthy witness to the truth.

Map of SF

Tow trucks

Dragging tears from

Our eyes

Across the face of the

City

Spittle landing on the

Bridge of the nose

From dogs who swallow

Gulps of anger from

Inflated bags holding

Bodies

Burping up pieces of

Shattered sky

Stepping on tongues

Stepping on songs

Speaking in multilingual mouth sores

Blocked views and

Stepped on feet

And a vault filled with

Faults and a furry tongue

Disguised as a magic carpet

A blown nose

And a blown life

Butter cuts through a knife

Eyes tacked shut

And a sandwich board is

A wanted poster of things not

On the menu

Tear trucks spraying

Away the skin of our

Streets

Obstructions in the

Jurisdiction of

The department of public hope

Ain’t no hands to hold on to

Just monkey bars coated with

The spit of generations gone by

But the gyrations

Persist

And a stick of gum is

An animated coffin

And stick figures

Sometimes come to life

When the sun is at

The right angle

And there is a security guard

To beat the pony

And the wages have capsized

The TV snow has thawed

And the moths thing

They’re flowers

No mop for this mess

In this city

That thinks it’s

 

Pretty

 

 

© 2018 Tony Robles

 

 

Carnaval

Every color feather

Every follicle preened

Every plucked dream

All flavors melting on the tongue

Dance with the sun

Dance with the ground

Drink the water of memory

Splash back at sorrows

 

Afflicted with an ingrown sound

We cradle it

The yolk of everything we are

Swelling like a balloon

Bellies and breasts

Filled with sound

Pregnant with songs unsung

Bursting forth

Birth waters from the

Shells of coconuts

Cooling the swelter of

The street

The swelter of our skin

The swelter of our lives

 

Carnival

Congeros

Timbaleros

 

Speaking the language of hands

Climbing upward

Clutching at our roots

Salsa

Cumbia

Frisco soul

Frisco sound of black and brown

The brothers and sisters emerge

 

What’s up blood?

How you been?

What up wit cha?

 

No place for the tone deaf

No place for the off beat

Rhythm of colonizer’s bones

Dying of thirst

Only to be quenched by rocks

 

Our exiled walks

And talks and

Rituals of higher

Frequency

Move like waves

Touching with the

Wet of our

Musical tears

Making its way into

The heart’s doorway

Where squeaky stairs

And doors and old

Greasy pots and pans

Keep us alive

And our hips give

Way and sway and

Shake the very

Foundations of this

City from the Golden Gate

To the Pyramid

That would make an

Earthquake look out of

Place in a dance

Contest

 

Carnaval!

Carnaval!

Carnaval!

 

Lowriders resting

Leaning

Underneath, every

Gesture, every hum

Every click

Every key that

Fits the heart

 

Rims and radiators

And the interior of

Our soul in an

Oldie by Little Anthony

And the Imperials

 

“Let me tell you that it hurts,

Hurts so bad.  It makes me feel

So sad.  It makes me hurts so

Bad to see you again”

 

And the Impalas

Glide with the grace of

A feather

 

To the sound

Of Carnaval

 

 

 

© 2018 Tony Robles

Letter to Mayor Farrell

Dear Mayor Farrell,

Forget the Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower, the Transamerica Pyramid and the box of rice a roni with the expiration date that has overstayed it welcome.  The icons, that bevy of hallmark moments of picturesque panoramas that fit nicely in pockets—and the deeper the pockets, the better—are mere holograms, mirages.  When I think of the city, one image comes to mind—the image of a metal walker in a garbage truck–the metal walker of a senior that was tossed away.  What use is the Golden Gate Bridge when the bridges that connect people have been severed, like a tendon, or a cable, meant to hold and support but cannot or rather—will not.  The sweeps, the confiscation of tents, the seizing of the minimal and meager belongings of those who struggle just to walk down the street is cruel—and ugly.  But that’s what San Francisco is, ugly.  It didn’t begin with your tenure as mayor but it persists.  And the historic icons, the lovely quaint Victorian homes, the cable car—are ugly.  The evictions are ugly and the fear that is mistaken for strength and decisiveness—is ugly.  When James Baldwin visited the city in 1965, he said that it was a good place to hide, that its beauty belied its ugliness.  But, at the end of the day, as Baldwin pointed out, it was just another American City.  He wasn’t fooled, he saw the ugliness immediately.  Many houseless folks were once housed but lost their homes to eviction.  Many are seniors and disabled.  Many were born and raised in the city, like you and I.  The fare inspectors are ugly.  The currency that the city thrives on is ugly–slashing away at tents, tossing out the possessions of folks who possess little, if anything–is ugly. Sidewalks where scooters have more rights than people, is ugly.  It’s clear that SF not only wants to confiscate the property of the homeless, but their dignity as well.  The city won’t be happy until it kills the spirit, especially of those who stand up, or speak out.  In those encampments are stories. In them are pain and misfortune.  But there is also sharing, where falls are broken by a hand or someone willing to put his or her body on the line.  In those encampments, in spite of what we are being fed by politicians and media, is a dignity that is, unfortunately missing in a city that has become ugly.

–2018 Tony Robles

 

Still Hanging on to the Carabao’s Tail

In 1996 Amerasia Journal published an essay by my Uncle, the poet Al Robles, in its special poetry edition. I don’t remember how I happened upon the journal but the title of the essay “Hanging on to the Carabao’s Tail” struck me immediately.  It was a year or so before the publication of my uncle’s poetry collection, “Rappin’ with Ten Thousand Carabaos in the Dark”—which was, and still is, a book that has both inspired and challenged students, educators, activists and people from many walks of life to go beyond boundaries, beyond themselves in their work and in their communities.  Uncle Al’s walk of life took him into the terrain of our community; our history, our fears, our passions, joy, contradictions, sorrows, pain and finally, love.  As a kid, I thought of my uncle as an odd-ball, the one with sandals, backpack, beard and dark rimmed glasses, always talking about the Filipino old-timers of the I-Hotel.  Manongs, manongs, manongs!  I didn’t know what a manong was.  But Uncle Al brought them into my imagination—planting an early seed into my young to-be writer’s mind—with images of a manong cooking alligator adobo, a manong who, in his younger days took on 5 men at once, and winning—all 5 foot 1 of him; and I can’t forget the tale of the manong healer who could perform surgery without implements while eating at the same time.  His walk of life was that of a wandering poet, covering the past and the future.  What I didn’t know at the time and, mind you, it was 1975 and I was 10 or 11, was that Uncle Al was chronicling the lives of the manongs, the early Filipino immigrants to this country.  I had no idea about our history.  But I had the tales of my uncle who would pose questions such as, “Who is to say the weeds are not the roots, who is to say the roots are not the weeds?  And it would be years before I’d find out that his backpack was filled with journals and a tape recorder—capturing the lives, voices and heart of the manongs.  And the poems flowed in those journals and his backpack swelled with voices of the wandering manongs, who he saw as poets. He often wrote of the struggles of the manongs, “Bending far back into the past”.  Where does the path of the manong lead?  Where does the path of the poet lead?  Uncle Al was brilliant, intuitive—sometimes referred to as a shaman—to which he responded, “I ain’t no goddamned medicine man!”  He earned a Master’s Degree in philosophy, maintained a correspondence with Thomas Merton, knew many of the beat poets and practitioners of Zen Buddhism who migrated to his hometown of San Francisco and felt a kinship to Kenji Miyazawa and Henry David Throeau.  Yet, he was from the ghetto, never forgetting the “Jazz of My Youth”—the voices of Billie Holilday and Sarah Vaughn that so moved him, the sounds moving in the cool Post Street wind from Cousin Jimbo’s Bop City where the black fingers ran over the keys, “Black over white”.  His heart was in the barrios, the barangays, the J-Towns and Manilatowns and Chinatowns where life and culture take root.  By the time he hit the I-Hotel, he had declared that all the books he’d read, all the knowledge he’d gleaned in academia wasn’t worth “One roll of toilet paper”.  It was in the faces of the manongs that he saw his own face, and the faces of his mother and father—the faces of the community.  It was in the I-Hotel eviction struggle that he travelled to a place called “Ifugao Mountain”.  On Ifugao Mountain was the smell of rice and fish cooked by brown hands of sugar cane fields and salmon skin.  On Ifugao Mountain were the sounds of lonely strings played in barbershops and pool halls.  On Ifugao Mountain was the manong, caught between two worlds—the one across the ocean and the one in the US, in small rooms visited by wandering poets turning over rocks and navigating the thick gnarled roots and sound of rivers in search of his or herself.  Uncle Al said that “We must be more than mere poets.”  His poetry and his fight for social justice was one in the same.  The fight for the I-Hotel was a fight for liberation and reparations.  In the words of a manong in Curtis Choy’s film, “The Fall of the I-Hotel”:  “We make these people rich and we demand our share”.  The 30 year struggle for the I-Hotel was a fight for liberation, it was a struggle to not forget.  As Uncle Al said many times, “The seeds of Manilatown were planted long ago”.  Uncle Al inspired and continues to inspire poets and educators, hip hop artists and activists.  Part of his legacy is, of course, the I-Hotel.  It was demolished after a long fight and rebuilt 30 years later—years and years of meetings and advocating and never forgetting the elders who were displaced in the name of real estate speculation and unbridled greed that still exists in the city.  The I-hotel was rebuilt—104 units of affordable senior housing with the Manilatown I-Hotel Center on the ground floor that provides programming—music and language lessons, art and a yearly commemoration of the eviction every August 4th.  The center truly embraces what Uncle Al described as “Coming home to Manilatown and the I-Hotel…Coming home to the smell of rice and fish”.  His legacy and influence can be seen in a landless people’s movement in East Oakland called Homefulness—a sweat equity model for housing by Poor Magazine based on community reparations.  Homefulness is a reality, providing housing to formerly houseless folks, providing childcare, a community garden and a school called Deecolonize Academy.  In honor of Uncle Al, they established the Al Robles Living Library, providing books and resources to the community in the spirit of giving.  Many of the books in the Uncle Al Library are poetry collections.  As he wrote:

 

                         Our poetry is the

                               Best part of our struggle

                               Our struggle is the

                               Best part of our poetry

 

 

Tony Robles 2018

Your Brown Face

This land has a brown face
there is blue sky
and green grasses growing underneath
this land has a brown face
you see it in the mountains
that still smile
season after season
this land has a brown face
this land is a brown face
brown tears fill empty cups
with rain and river
music
you can’t stop the wind from
remembering the brown face
that is you
this land is sorrows without you
the brown of your face is in the land
the brown of your voice stirs the grass
Walls are useless
It cannot hide the brown of your face
this land is a brown face
this land is a black river
this land is a memory of brown
a memory of brown feet
that have walked every inch,
every corner of this land that cannot
be kept from you
this land is a brown face
No wall can keep you from the land
No wall can keep out the love
That is you

(c) 2018 Tony Robles