Help, I have lost myself again. Lost myself and I am nowhere to be found. Yet, I think that I might break. Lost myself again and I feel unsafe. Be my friend, hold me.
Sia, “Breathe Me”

I have decided that for now, my motto will simply be, ‘Ngiyazama.’ Ngiyazama means, simply, “I am trying” in Zulu. When I first began to attempt to speak with Zulu speakers in South Africa, many people would look at me in surprise and ask, “Ukhuluma isiZulu?” (You speak Zulu?), to which I would emphatically reply, “Ngiyazama,” to general laughter.

For me, Lent has gotten off to a rip-roarin’ start of frustration and isolation. This tends to happen when I make solemn promises to understand the Jesus I believe in and in turn attempt to understand the love I have received in hopes of giving that very love to other peoples. But, in short, it’s been a bit of a train wreck of late.

This week saw me grappling with continued revelations about my father and the general fucked-uppery of my family situation. It’s been a lot of awkwardness to process, and it is incredibly difficult to actually understand that situations that affect my family, my parents, really impact me. I tend to view my family history in a way that I’d view a historic text; something that matters, but also one that I can somewhat analyze through my critical tools. This week has shown me that I’m not nearly as aloof or as removed as I’d led myself to believe.

In addition, I found myself in an incredibly volatile and unfortunate meeting between members of the history faculty and the symposium that I am planning. The tensions between the aims of a conference to increase diversity recruitment, and one that focuses on the intersections of gender and women’s history were needlessly cast in oppositional roles, and as the only person serving on both committees, I found myself in the unpleasantly familiar position of having to serve as a “bridge between differing peoples, perspectives and cultures” just by virtue of who I was. And yet no progress initially appeared to be made. I had to swallow my own discomfort and my own angry and my own powerlessness in hopes of finding a solution and while a compromise was reached, I just felt broken by the end of it. Did I mention that in the inflamed rhetoric of the meeting I was accused of supporting white supremacy? No? Well that shows the particular amount of non-reason that was functioning in such a discussion.

I thought I’d made it through the midst of it all, when the ridiculousness of UCSD’s ‘Compton Cookout’ broke out. You see, for many an observer, it’s just another incident in a history of racist parties and white privilege masquerading as ‘good fun’ or ‘free speech.’ Yet for me, this hurt far, far more. This was where I obtained two degrees, this is where I fought to make my own space and to feel like I belonged. This is a school where, upon my entrance as a freshman in 2001, the black population numbered less than 200 in an undergraduate pool of 20,000. We were less than 1%, we were ‘negligible.’ Yet we were there. It was where I first really realized I was a ‘person of color,’ and that there were real things worth fighting for, like education equity, decolonization of educational institutions, and against the silencing, normalizing processes of white, male, heterosexual privileges. Yet soon afterward, a student went on SRTV and called those people who fought such buffoonery, such derision “uppity niggers.” And like a similar incident that happened to me last year at the U of I, my sense of safety was taken away. You see, white privilege is fun and insidious that way; it is so normal, it fills the contours of what is acceptable and desirable and regular. For people of color, the lines of orientation, the ones to reproduce whiteness in colonial spaces like the United States, are often painfully apparent when they don’t fit contours of whtie expectation. And in the ensuing nonsense of UCSD, I once again remembered the daily, petty ways I felt my own security, my own belonging chipped at by people that sometimes didn’t even realize that they were pushing me out of my own spaces.

This has been a brutal week for me, as I’ve struggled to reconcile the disillusionment with my family, the disappointment with my department, and the despair with my alma mater. I have been tired, I have been angry, I have been disoriented by racism and privilege and pride and pain. And that, unfortunately, has made me less of the person that I’d want to be. I’ve lashed out in anger at people who needed correction but not excoriation; while it is not always my place to have to be the conduit fo runderstanding for people, I have at times this week just abandoned the pretense altogether. I have been exhausted by my own workload and the simultaneous weights of my history–familial, professional, institutional–and I have not led from the love that I know I am offered by a God that cares for me and for communities that welcome me.

I have been afraid, and I have been exhausted. I have not taken time to self-care for fear of falling behind in my own workload. So to anyone reading this,Ngiyazama. I am tryign to love. I am trying to untangle my heart from the fear that I won’t have everything together, and that things will completely fall apart. And I am grateful for those of you that love me, that remind me who I am and where I am going. I am sorry for those I have treated with less than love this week, and I struggle mightily to balance my multiple hats and my multiple orientations as scholar, friend, human, community member.

This morning, after reading about yet more ridiculosity around the world, and right before missing my bus, I thumbed through my Bible, a practice that I genuinely enjoy and regret not doing as often as I’d like. Again, fear of not being on top of my workload is powerful, eh? But I found this passage this morning:

And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.
God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.
(1 John 4:16-21)

I am afraid, and I am tired. But if I believe that I am loved by God, and that love is to be returned to others and celebrated, than I need to be sacrificial and I need to be revolutionary. I need to rely on some of you out there, I need to be vulnerable, and I need to be okay with my brokenness and my incompleteness. In short, I need to try.

So, Ngiyazama, my friends. Ngiyazama.

How am I feeling?:: exhausted
What’s playing?:: Sia – Breathe Me

“Yebo, amabutho kaJoji waseNgilandi aqotho impela. Okwempela uJoji nami singabanawe; usebanqobile bonke abamhlophe njengoba nami ngibanqobile abamnyama. Akenisho, uJoji lona muhle njenganmi na?” Inkosi uShaka kaSenzangakhona (1787-1828) “Yes, the armies of George IV of England are strong indeed. In fact, George and I are brothers. He has defeated all of the white people whereas I have defeated all of the blacks. But tell me, is King George good looking like me?” King Shaka (1787-1828) Yes, that was what I had to translate today. The Napoleon of Southern Africa, one of the greatest military strategists of all time, and one of his first questions was whether or not he was hotter than King George. [By the way, you be the judge. Shaka: George: I know, I know.] But this is a typical day in Pietermaritzburg now: I get up at 6 am , go for a run, shower, grab a cup of coffee at a local cafe while reading Zulu, then head to class at 830, where I either do grammar, read Zulu literature or stories, and learn tons of new vocabulary and tenses (remote past progressive, anyone?) before a tea break and then a lunch break at 12:45. From then it’s either Zulu writing or Zulu history from 2-4, then tutoring in speaking Zulu from 5-7, then homework from about 7-9. That is, when we’re not watchign the surprising successes of both the U.S. and the South African (bafanabafana) soccer teams! This past weekend was a definite break from routine, however. Saturday we all tramped out for a visit to Ecabazini, which is a traditional Zulu farm run by a white man (*i know*) who speaks fluent Zulu and has been accepted by the local community and even is in training to become a sangoma, or a traditional herbal healer. The farm has two components, a real, self-sustaining farm populated by rural Zulus that make a living off their products and that is green and self-sustaining to the point that they make their own electricity and produce their own propane (from cow dung–which was pretty dang amazing), and the other part is a ‘show’ kraal or umuzi (homestead), that demonstrates rural Zulu lives, traditions, and cultural values. It’s a pretty amazing place. We fumbled in our Zulu for words like cattle raising, government plans, and the verb to milk, but then we got hands on experience doing everythign from milking Zulu cattle to cleaning a traaditional Zulu homestead. Zulu traditional homes (izindlu) are made with packed dirt floors often taken from termite nests for added strength. And in order to clean these floors, after they’ve been muddied by rain or excessive tracking, you have to resurface them. With cow dung. Guess whose job that was? Yep. For those of you who have seen the film “Amelie,” remember the early scene where she thinks records are made like pancakes? As in they’re spread on in a thick shiny coating that is then thinned and made even? You don’t? Well, that’s what T.J. did on Satufday, except using wet cow shit in his hands over a dirt floor. And yes, it was awesome. DOnt’ be jealous. We also had a fantastic day trying Zulu steamed bread (ujeqe), and roasted beef (inyama yenkomo yosilwe). We then were tricked into attempting Zulu dancing with everyone. Mercifully, I do not believe there are pictures of this. I will be including pictures of me spreading poop on a floor to clean it in the next email, however. So be excited! Finally, Sunday dawned bright and clear, our first free day of the trip. Even more coincidentally, my advisor at Illinois was in Durban (40 miles or so away), and we made plans to hang out, because, quite frnkly, nothing is more awesome than meeting your academic hero/life coach/friend/life-urger whilst sitting on the Indian Ocean. I took a khumbi, a tightly packed taxi (that in the past five years since I was last here are now officially regulated vehicles, interestingly enough), that took an hour to drive to eThewkini, the coastal city of Durban, at the amazing price of 40 rand (approx. $5). Professor Burton had her entire family in tow, and we frolicked along the boardwalk and aquarium of uShaka Marine World, the very South African complex of tourist spot/odd historical statement, named after both the Zulu king and the loan word for ‘Shark.’ We then dipped our toes in the Indian Ocean after a day filled with manata rays, sharks, and lengthy complex conversations on postcolonialism and positionality. It restored my energy for anotehr week of learning. I think that wraps this update up, but next week I’m leaving for a weeklong stay in Imbali, the Zulu township outside of Pietermaritzburg, where I’m staying with a local Zulu family. I won’t lie. I’m nervous. And excited. Your poop smearing comrade in arms, T.J.

Sanibonani abangane bami, umndeni wami, futhi umuntu omuthandwa,
(Hello there, my friends, family, and people I love):

For those of you who might not know, I am currently in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, for the next two months, on an intensive Zulu language program, sponosred by Fulbright-Hays, the University of Pennsyvlania, and the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg (where I studied abroad for six months in 2004).

I left the U.S. on the morning of Thursday, June 11, and began a ridiculously long cavalcade of flying, missed connections, getting lost, and racing to places. I spent a week and a half or so in Los Angeles before leaving, saying goodbye and hello to friends and family, and then began this crazy ride. I nearly missed my connecting flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg, and then endured the fascinating reality of fifteen hours spent traveling in one single plane flight with no stops. Gah.

I emerged, disoriented, on Friday night with nine other students whereupon we discovered we’d missed our flight connection to Durban, and would have to spend the night; the plane company put us up for free at a local hostel, and we landed on Saturday afternoon in eThekwini (Durban in isiZulu). Meeting us at teh airport was Doctor Audrey Mbeje, a professor at UPenn and our instructor here, a bright bubbly woman with a halo of curls and a piercing, warm laugh. We spent the weekend tryign to make sense of our extreme jet-lag and our new location in South Africa by exploring the city, practicing our tentative Zulu, and rejoicing in the plethora of mistakes we made with a new language adn a new country.

The minute we arrived at the motel we were staying at for the weekend, the staff (informed that we were isiZulu students), greeted us entirely in isiZulu and stressed that they would be helping us practice. Nothing helps you learn words like key, door, flight, wake-up, juice, help, and pillow like a full immersion hotel stay😉.

Also, one of the waitresses at the hotel restaurant asked us all eagerly what our Zulu names were. I hadn’t received one in class, so I said tentatively, “Anginagama lwesiZulu” (I don’t have a Zulu name), to which she responded, “Ngifuna ukuqamba wena.” (I want to name you.)

So she did. Zulu naming is often based on immediatley visible physical traits, which can be a bit distressing, so I was a little nervous. However, Phumuzile looked at me, sized me up, and pronounced: “uS’dudla.” Which literally means…. The Thick One.

I am a winner.

So, my Zulu name is basically “The Thick Guy.” I prefer to think of myself as a brick house, mighty mighty.

Sunday saw us taken around on a tour by a woman named–I kid you not–Shiny Bright, a sixty-odd British woman who doubled as a tour guide and had lived in South Africa for over three decades. Her white skin was wrinkled and threaded with laugh lines like a crinkled piece of paper, and her frizzy red hair stood all around her looking ever so much like the mane of a rogue lion. Shiny’s eyes darted back and forth like goldfish in a bowl as she energetically explained and itemized and discussed every facet of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, apartheid, and race relations—not without her own awkward commentary, such as “The Zulus are such a happy people, it’s so good to see them working!” (what the hell?) Still, her royal Shiny Brightness won points for effort and heart, and it was hard to not be won over at least partially by her (somewhat misplaced) good cheer.

Monday we left Durban and headed for Pietermaritzburg, which made me feel entirely confused and delightec to see the city and university I called home for six months in 2004. I realize now that I was very much changed by that experience, adn the research goals and life path I have now is in part due to what I saw and experienced in ungnumndlovu–The City of the Elephant, the Zulu name for Pietermaritzburg.

Life here has been utterly surreal so far. We have class from 8:30-4:00 every day, with a break for tea, and a break for lunch. Then we have Zulu language tutoring from 5-7 with language tutors Monday-Thursday. Fridays are rest days, although we do have writing practice in the afternoons. Saturdays are generally marked for cultural trips, and Sundays may or may not be for resting (or more travel).

My brain feels stretched to bursting each day, like I’ve had a heavy heavy meal, and then I must process, file, consume, and extract all the information as necessary in order to continue to the next day. We’re breezing through tenses, learning Zulu songs, and rehearsing and repeating Zulu folktales. It’s a lot, but damn is it worth it. I’m glad to be doing this, and I’m really looking forward to seeing how this changes my research. I’m also fortunate enough to be in a place specifically hosting much fo the nineteenth century archival research I want to get my hands on, so you know I’m goign to spend a day or two poking through archives with a nerdy cackle of glee unknown by sane peoples.

It’s been an utterly surreal year so far. I find myself at a strangely circular point after having finished a year of graduate school and launched into another adventure that takes me back to a life-changing location in my personal history. Yet more than ever I find myself grateful to be able to study the topics I care so much about, and I feel encouraged as a student, scholar and friend by those of you I’m writing to. Thank you for your love, and your support, and yoru friendship, and the ridiculous times you’ve helped me through or listened to me relate. I’ll be sure to keep you in the loop with all my madness as time goes on.

Hamba kahle, (Go well)


Urbana-Champaign’s most recent snow, dulled after several days’ exposure, crunched listlessly under my feet as I strode briskly to the bus station, weaving through the cluttered sidewalks of a glorified downtown. I dodged a malicious patch of ice, marveled at the fact that I felt it was “warm” because it was about 25 degrees, and kept up my brisk pace to the station, my brows crinkling in concentration underneath a green knit cap.

As I stopped at the crosswalk, I brushed a lock of hair out of my eye and thought of the intense amount of reading I’d done in the past two days. My advisor assigned five books and two articles for today’s class, and it was a minor miracle I’d gotten most of it read. The course is focused on the British Empire, but Dr. Burton threw in a bit of theory by assigning Sarah Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology, a fascinating synthesis of queer theory, Saidian Orientalist criticism, feminist critique, and race studies. As the daughter of a white English mother and a Pakistani father, born in the UK but raised in Australia, Ahmed weaves narratives of space and time and fitting in and understanding self in a way that is instantly familiar, coolly detached, and intellectually seductive. I’d eagerly filled my notebook with quotations and thoughts that afternoon at Café Aroma, my favourite local coffeehouse, and her words echoed in my ears at that moment.

Ahmed speaks of occupying space, of claiming space, of being in three dimensions. She writes, “Each time I move, I stretch myself out, trying this door, looking here, looking there. In stretching myself out, moving homes for me is coming to inhabit spaces, coming to embody them, where my body and the rooms in which it gathers—sitting, sleeping, writing, acting as it does in this room and that room—cease to be distinct. It times take, but this work of inhabitance does take place. It is a process of becoming intimate with where one is: an intimacy that feels like inhabiting a secret room that is concealed from the view of others. Loving one’s home is not about being fixed into a place, but rather it is about becoming part of a space where one has expanded one’s body, saturating the space with bodily matter: home as overflowing and flowing over…The work of inhabitance involves orientation devices; ways of extending bodies into spaces that create new folds, or new contours of what we could call livable or inhabitable space. If orientation is about making the strange familiar through the extension of bodies into space, then disorientation occurs when that extension fails…”

The light turned green, and with no small irony, the white man electronically appeared, bidding me to walk. Mindful of missing my bus, I walked faster, pushing my way through the surrounding space like a purposeful ship cleaving the waves. And in the icy walkway of the Illinois Terminal, I waited for my bus.

The #70 is rather different than the many, many other buses of Champaign-Urbana, and I’m frequently aware of that every time I ride it. Unlike most of the buses, which are filled with a large number of eager-faced undergrads, tired-looking graduate students, or Wal-Mart or Meijer-shopping bag carrying Midwest (white) locals, the #70 is almost entirely black, as it travels through the entirety of the neighborhood of Urbana north of University, and more significantly, north of Bradley—C-U’s primarily black neighborhood. I’ve had friends from C-U tell me that was the “urban” part of our metropolitan area—a laughable statement as the whole area’s population is approx. 120,000 and there’s no higher ‘urbanity’ there than anywhere else. Oh, they must mean ‘urban’ as in ‘brown and poor.’ Of course.

Often I smile condescendingly and good naturedly at my fellow Chambanans, who are afraid of the ethnic population, the poverty, the ‘difference.’ Not I, I think. I’m different. I’m a grad student of color. I’m down with the struggle. I get it. I even congratulate myself for living on the ‘urban’ bus route. True, my neighborhood is not constantly visited by police—but I live six blocks from that area, so I must be noble.

Let me tell you, those illusions vanish into thin air every time I stand and wait for the #70 bus. You see, I stood there today, in beat up tennis shoes, jeans, pea coat, and beanie—and felt entirely out of place. Like I always do.

I was surrounded by poorer black people, and I had nothing to say. I was surrounded by mi gente, if you will, and had nothing to say, no dialog to join in the midst of the local gossip, nothing to say to the group of guys and girls about my age, the women in skintight jeans and boots, puffy jackets, and slick hair; the guys in impossibly sagging jeans, long coats, work boots, cornrows. When the older black woman talks about her son in prison, I don’t have a personal story other than that of my cousin in prison for robbery, or for the countless statistics I know about ‘my people’ and the struggle.

Struggle? I’m a middle class mixed kid from Los Angeles with a penchant for indie rock, well-observed quips, and Vh1 television. I feel incredibly foreign and alien on the #70, where people ride the bus because that is their only means of transport, as opposed to grad students who don’t drive during the week to save money and worry about their fellowship money and if they can afford more beer. I feel my ‘blackness,’ my ‘cred,’ consists of mere talismans that do little. My hair, with its wild tendrils pointing in corkscrew misdirection to my diasporic roots, is safely under my hat. My name, Tyrone Jr, has been abbreviated, domesticated to a T.J., only unearthed for the occasional oohs and ahs of my fellow bourgeois ironyphiles. I sink down in my seat, feeling exposed, as I remember another quote from biracial, queer Sarah Ahmed:

Racism ‘stops’ black bodies inhabiting space by extending through objects and others; the familiarity of ‘the white world,’ as a world we know implicitly, ‘disorients’ black bodies such that they cease to know where to find things—reduced as they are to things among things…Colonialism makes the world ‘white,’ which is of course a world ‘ready’ for certain kinds of bodies, as a world that puts certain objects within their reach…In a way, then race does become a social as well as a bodily given, or what we receive from others as an inheritance of this history.”

Insert edgy race photo here.

Insert edgy race photo here.

Today in class, we talked about the utmost importance of a scholar’s positionality; how we need to know who we are and why we’re saying it. I know that I’m a bourgeois middle class mixed kid with pretensions occasionally to being the voice of the POC. I am at times a cardboard revolutionary, playing at social change yet giving nothing up myself. I hide behind my melanin yet hold to class privilege and self-satisfied by the double-standard, I don’t’ question it. Til I get on the #70 bus, and am forced to realize that I’m not nearly as together as I think I am, in this as well as in all areas of my life. And I’m ruefully amused that in a creepy way, I depend on my ‘poor black brothers’ to teach me important life lessons.

Simply put: I want to become an academic because I want to make a difference in this world with the skills that God has given me. But I find it deliriously tempting to become a self-righteous, self-satisfied pontificator, throwing Saidian theory or speaking of development, while offering little of my own for change. If I really believe in change, or hope, how do I live it? If my faith matters, how do I live that, as well as live out social justice? How do I become a real, authentic thinker, aware of my privilege and committed to helping realize freedom for others as well as myself? How do I do that correctly, rightly, justly?

These are questions I ask myself as I am oriented and reoriented in my sliding spaces on the #70 bus.

I am so lucky. So lucky.

I stepped off the plane Friday night, cold, tired, exhausted, confused. And took one look at my mother, who just smiled at me simply and said, ‘welcome home.’ And I teared up wearily, thankfully.

I slept fitfully and woke up to a beautiful crystal clear Saturday. Josh Callow came up for breakfast, and we sat at Gaffey Street Diner.

“How are ya hon? We’ve missed you, and we’re proud of you,” the waitress said, refilling my coffee. “I’m glad you came back!”

Josh and I stood at the Korean Friendship Bell and looked at the ocean, placid and blue and vast, while we talked about life and hopes over the rolling green hills. Pradeep sent me a text message. I felt odd that friends in Illinois miss me. I felt happy.

Mom and I had dinner and watched movies together. Kev called, and we went to the pier and walked, got coffee and talked, went and saw Milk. Pontificated on silly life stories. Reflected on fifteen years of friendship.

Drove Mom’s car on Sunday. Driving an SUV with the license plate “TAZ MOM” is a bit irregular. Prayers at starbucks followed by church at gvbc. Hugs for people I consider near-family. Left quietly after church, went to coffee cartel, favourite spot since high school. Drank espresso, thought about life. Sat and looked at the beach and teared up while listening to Kate Nash on the iPod.

All I know is that you’re so nice. You’re the nicest thing I’ve seen… she whispered as I watched waves echo back and forth, dancing over sand, ebbing and flowing. It’s 0 degrees in Urbana today. And sixty-three here.

I am home, and I’m crying on a beach in Redondo remembering mistakes in the past and the man I want to become somewhere in the future. Vaguely I realize there’s sand in my afro.

I wish that you needed me. I wish that you knew that when I said ‘two sugars’ actually I meant three

Sandwiches with mom. Funny stories. Laughter. Worry about the cat. Why is he nearly 20 and so thin? He eats ravenously, yet is skeletal and feeble. He is losing control over his bodily functions, to the detriment of the couch and rugs. We mention putting him down. I pretend not to notice the tears in my mom’s eyes and she doesn’t point out my hands are shaking.

Monday morning comes. Rain nonstop. Laugh at the fact that I feel cold. I get dressed and realize the cat has peed on the pair of jeans I left on my bedroom floor. I swear silently and change. Adrian picks me up. Go to Rex’s Diner. Jose the waiter hugs me and asks about my mom, totalmente en espanol and refuses to hear me in English. I comply and decir que voy a estar aqui por un mes. Estoy feliz aqui. No quiero regresar. Adrian stirs his coffee and talks about hope while the rain continues to fall. Mom calls and I tell her about the cat. We pretend we’re not worried. Pradeep texts again.

Come home. Adrian’s given me a pie. I sneak a taste. My dad sends me a text message. He knows I wont’ call. He asks tentatively via text if I’m home. I say yes, he writes “I miss u” I wonder if he realized that choosing mistresses and beatings over quality timewould come back to him some day. i text back noncommittally. Edwin calls. He’s late. He comes, looking irritable. We go to the Loft for lunch. Sweet Jesus, I’ve missed spam musubi and hawaiian lunch plates. no one knows what saimin is in Illinois. Philistines. Edwin pours his heart out. I listen detached. We go for a walk. He probes on my fears and dreams. He looks at me intently. Are you happy? I grow silent. We share deeply over poorly made lattes in the del amo starbucks. Christmas rushes make everyone impatient.

i wish you couldn’t figure me out, but you’d always want to know what i was about

Edwin hugs me before he leaves, thanks me for hanging out. I can only say the same, and mean it. Daniel calls and picks me up. I’m beginning to feel a bit like a d-level celebrity, one meriting pick ups. We get Mexican food. We laugh, exchange ridiculous inside jokes. I realize I’ve seen nothing but awesome people today. We plan on seeing Slumdog millionaire, but we’re waaaay early for the show. So we get coffee. Then go to del amo. Then I run into random people. andrew butt; stephanie, my dental hygenist. other friends. Buy christmas gifts. feel broke/excited–brokecited?–anyway, get ready to see movie. Get emotional, excited, angry. Love every minute. Run into high school friends, matt, megan, myriam. Realize they’re old like me. Feel so lucky.

Daniel and I talk about deep stuff on the ride home. I thank him and tell him he’s a wonderful friend. He murmurs a response. Walk in front door. Start to cry. Mom sleepily asks what I’m doing at 1 am. I tell her I’m loved. She smiles and says, “did you ever doubt it?” I smile and shrug away the doubts. I tell her I’m lucky to be loved by a family and have friends that pick me up and talk to me about life. She concurs. We avoid the cat topic, save for a lighthearted joke. I tell her I love her. She tells me igualmente and sleeps.

I sit down at the computer and listen to kate nash and ani difranco and regina spektor and stare at the christmas tree. the lights twinkle and i feel loved. I wonder if this is all a dream. if im going to wake up and feel cold and lonely in illinois in the morning. i decide to pray. my mom yells from the bedroom if i’m on facebook again. perhaps it’s time to go to bed.

sufjan stevens comes on and i sit in the quiet glow of the living room, surrounded by twinkling lights. i’ve made a lot of mistakes in my mind. i gingerly pick up the cat and pet him. if i was crying in the van with my friends, it was for freedom–for myself and for the land.
How am I feeling?:: curious
What’s playing?:: Kate Nash – Nicest Thing

It’s fall, and the business of colors and coldness are in full swing.  Every day when I walk outside of my house I wade through a pile of crunchy, beautiful flakes of gold beneath my feet and with the smoky tendrils of my breath trailing behind me into the crisp autumn air.  So, this is what they mean by seasons?  I guess it’s not too bad.  The colors are fantastic, and the fall is strangely calming in its beauty, even if it is getting a bit cold.

The Fall weather here is even more erratic and temperamental than the high schoolers I used to teach.  Two weeks ago, I left my house on Monday morning to 31 degree weather, only to find that Friday that the weather had soared to 73 degrees.  It’s no small wonder that I got sick.  Fortunately, all is well in my house, as my heater works, I have obtained a winter coat, and I’m learning this strangely counterintuitive layering process.  (We ‘layer’ in California, but not the same way–and what a pretentious thing to say, “dress in layers!”  Doesnt’ everyone do that to some extent?)

My classes have been getting even more awesome, and the learning is somewhat overwhelming if freaking fantastic.  Zulu is becoming even more interesting, and Tholani, my self-described “language mama” and Zulu teacher is helping us learn quickly.  The only other graduate student in the class, Rick, is a PhD student in music, focusing on Southern African musical styles.  He was planning a large class lecture on African music in the course he is a Teaching Assistant for, and he asked me and a few other students (as well as Tholani) to perform a Zulu song for the 200 seat undergraduate lecture.  For those of ou tha tknow the pitiful extent of my vocal ability, it was daunting.  But I’m glad I said yes.

Rick had us sing “Shosholoza,” a call and response song remembering one’s distant home, sung by Africans who were going to work in the mines in the early twentieth century.  Later, the words were used by anti-apartheid activists, and the text has taken on quite a different meaning than its initial statement.  The lyrics are, roughly:

Ku lezontaba
Stimela siphum’ eSouth Africa
Wen’ uyabaleka
Wen’ uyabaleka
Ku lezontaba
Stimela siphum’ eSouth Africa

Which roughly translates to:

Move fast
on those mountains
train from South Africa.
You are running away
on those mountains
train from South Africa.

If you’re curious about hearing a fantastic rendition of the song [read: not by me!], click here:

In describing the song, Tholani told us, that the word “Shosholoza” means to hurry up, or move quickly, but it’s also directly related to the way that a train moves.  It imitates the sound of a steam train (“shoo-shoo-shoo”) winding its way through the distant mountains on the way to its destination.  Zulu often creates words that are related to their sound (i.e., motorcycle is “isithuthuthu” pronounced “ee-see-too-too-too”, the rough approximation of a motorcycle engine), but these also create interesting meanings.  Tholani pointed out that “Shosholoza also means to move forward but in a cursory or winding way, not necessarily in a straight line, in a way that is confused and perhaps disorganized, although full of energy.

“Shosholoza,” on that note, seems a fitting way to describe life lately both here and in general.

I’m working on writing a research paper on white anti-racist novels in Southern Africa in the the 1940’s and 50’s and looking at the ways that white masculinity features prominently in them.  It’s pretty dang fun, although I feel a bit overwhelmed in the research and Shosholoza would be an apt way to describe my movements through the labyrinthine stacks of the U of I’s 10 million-book library.  I’m basically a less interesting, overweight Indiana Jones of color as I dart and dodge and weave through stacks, looking for books that give me clues to understanding more about the minds and hopes and dreams of these South African and Rhodesian authors.

Of course, on a different note, I’d be remiss if I don’t talk about events that are happening on the larger stage.  It was an amazing night for me to watch Barack Hussein Obama win the election and become the 44th President of the United States (eventually).  And I was in the proper state to watch it, as BHO is Illinois’ senator.  While I live 120 miles south of Grant Park, we had our own minor celebrations.  I headed to the center of Champaign’s “Campus Town,” which had been blocked off by impromptu marches, and rallies of joy.  I watched a bunch of college students pull out a huge American flag and shout “U.S.A!” and sing patriotic songs.  And for the first time in a long time, I wasn’t immediately, knee-jerk suspicious or uncomfortable or angry.  It was a weird feeling to watch democracy “work” on some level to repudiate the policies of a Presidential administration in hopeful favor of another.  We’ll see how this works out, but for that moment, it was deeply beautiful, and wonderfully symbolic to see happen.  I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the simple moment.

Of course the joy and energy and delight of that moment quickly faded in the morning upon hearing of the passage of Proposition 8.  I’d voted absentee from California to help defeat the proposition, and it was incredibly disappointing to see what had happened, even more so to be surrounded by the euphoric joy of Illinois residents, young and old, black and white (and Asian and Latino), who were ecstatic to see what they saw as real change.  It fell to us few Californians to console each other after a devastating loss.  I am still upset, to think of it.  That the legal rights of a group of people are removed from them via a constitutional amendment is just, simply, staggering.  Absolutely staggering.  And what wounds me even more is that people who share my faith, the thing that grounds me so much and governs my actions, used Jesus as their reasons to remove legal rights.  And that some of those self-same people would then tell me that my Christian faith was defective or broken or faulty because it didnt’ match theirs.  It’s a strangely disolocating feeling to see people celebrate and realize that while for you personally, some barriers have been taken away, for others, the door has slammed shut on their rights.  The next day, while reading the writings of Cuban patriot and revolutionary Jose Marti (whose work is central to the 1895 revolution that began Cuba’s final war for independence from Spain), I noticed in his writings he said that the United States was particularly guilty of “the attempt to prevail in the name of freedom by means of ruthless actions in which the rights of others to freedom’s methods and guarantees are set aside.”  And the phrase “Shosholoza,” immediately came to mind.  The wandering notion of traveling in a slow, laborious, often circuitous route, as if by a stimela entabeni (steam train in the mountains).  As freedom is given to some, or at least hope, for others, it is firmly slammed shut.

I found myself bitter on Wednesday morning, and angry at a lot of things, and disappointed in further others.  So I decided to pray.  And go for a walk.  At seven in the morning.  It was cold.  I immediately regretted my choice.  But I’d brought my camera, and the fall colors were beautiful, beckoning, hopeful.  And so I embarked on my own morning shosholoza.  I wandered and prayed among the tree line streets of Urbana, Illinois.  I prayed for the new President.  I prayed for the nation.  I prayed for those who in the arrogant positionality of their own privilege, forgot that it wasn’t “just politics.”  These were the rights of fellow human beings.  I prayed for my own self-righteousness.  I prayed that I might understand my own identity as a straight, Christian man of color and see my own privilege, my own selfishness, my own arrogance.  And I snapped a heck of a lot of pictures.  I meandered along streets for awhile, and snapped shots, and voiced my frustration, and impatience and anger and annoyance and hope and delight and irritation and sadness.
(If you’d like to see most of those pictures I took, feel free to venture here:

So how have I been?  On some levels, great, others are strange.  I’m still far less comfortable here than I thought I’d be.  I’m developing friendships that are meaningful, and I like being here, but I don’t feel “safe,” or “secure” yet.  In other words, it’s still obvious to me that I’m not from here.  I’m more self-conscious than I was in L.A. or San Diego.  And that leads me to be occasionally impatient, or tactless, things that weren’t nearly as common back home (I think–you all may believe differently!).  And it’s frustrating to realize that I’m not nearly as clever or witty or thoughtful as I’d previously believed.  But it’s a learning, growing process, and like that train puffing slowly but surely through the high mountains of South Africa, I’m making my own slow, winding path to wholeness and self-discovery.

I have made it to Urbana-Champaign, and I have much to write about my road trip and the emotional exchanges that have gone on since then. However, today warrants one simple entry.

Today I found myself at the Habitat for Humanity Re-Store, a Goodwill like place. On the third floor, they had for sail old time dolls with yarn hair and string faces. Some were the predictable peach skin/red hair dolls, but some were midnight black with ghoulish red mouths. I stopped and stared. While the dolls were similar in every other way, they did have that intensive color variation, which stopped me.

Even worse? They differed in price. The black dolls were $3, the white ones were $5. I turned to my friend Josh and said, “wow, it’s the new 3/5 Compromise.”

My word.