In the Company of Others

Hola Everybody,
As I mentioned yesterday, my friend, Soffiyah Elijah will launching her new initiative, the Alliance of Families for Justice, at an event at the Black National Theater in Harlem (6:00 PM). I will be there because I believe in Soffiyah as a visionary leader who is passionate about criminal justice reform.

Would love to see you there! Her initiative seeks to…

… Support the families of people with criminal justice involvement, empower them as advocates, and mobilize them to achieve systemic change.

Which to me means, community.

Making Community

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… for the full flowering of the human spirit we need groups, tribes, community.
— Margaret Meade

 

I was raised within an extended family that included a whole range of what sociologists call kinship relations. My family included biological and non-biological relatives. Later in life, I would discover that people I grew up calling “cousin” or “aunt” or “uncle” weren’t actually blood relatives. They were individuals that either adopted us or vice versa.

I have always been interested in community, but have despaired that real community has gone the same way of extended family relationships. Still, I was heartened to read Marget Meade, who noted that:

“99 percent of the time humans have lived on this planet we’ve lived in groups of 12 to 36 people. Only during times of war, or what we have now, which is the psychological equivalent of war, does the nuclear family prevail, because it’s the most mobile unit that can ensure the survival of the species. But for the full flowering of the human spirit we need groups, tribes, community.”

My extended family and childhood community made for great drama, comedy, and conflict (which I am putting together in a book of short stories tentatively called 704 E. 5th St.) This sense of kinship and community also gave me a much-needed sense of security knowing that it wasn’t just me and my mother at the helm of a precariously held family unit. To illustrate, I’ll give you an example from my life.

My father had been missing for some days and the family was worried. It wasn’t unusual for him to disappear for a day, but he always let us know of his whereabouts. Part of my chores as a young boy was to buy Italian bread and milk early in the morning. It was also expected that I would pick up the daily papers, one of them being the Spanish-language El Diario. That one morning, I went to buy El Diario and there on the front page was a picture of my unconscious father, literally splattered on the sidewalk blood trickling from the corner of his mouth (the tabloid was notorious for such photos). I ran home and showed my mother and aunts. My father shattered both elbows when he fell from a five-story building. He had also lost some memory and didn’t know who he was.

About a week or two after that, I was hit by a car during what turned out to be a minor riot in the Lower East Side community we lived in. Someone had escaped from the prison section of the nearby Bellevue Hospital, had stolen a police vehicle and crashed into several cars on our block in the ensuing chase. The police began beating the escapee, a young Latino man, which resulted in a riot. It was on our block and as kids, we thought the whole thing was cool. We noticed that one of the police had lost his badge in the struggle and when I raced across the street to get the badge (how cool!), I was struck by a speeding car and sent flying through the air. I tried to get up and run, but my knee had been blown out.

The event would ensure me childhood celebrity, for I came out on the front page of, yes, El Diario (and the whole slew of New York dailies), as well as a side note to the local evening TV news. From then on, my friends would introduce me to their parents as the kid who came out on the front pages of New York’s daily newspapers: Ma, this was the kid who came out in the news!

About two weeks after that, my mother, who by now had to visit my father and me every day as well, was preparing the breakfast oatmeal for my two sister’s and youngest brother, who was about three years-old at the time. Alone and stressed beyond belief, she went to comb my sisters’ hair during which time my youngest brother reached up and spilled boiling oatmeal on his arm. He suffered third degree burns.

My father was supposed to have both arms amputated, which he refused. Instead, they did a series of experimental operations over two years, which saved his arms. I believe my father was one of the first to have tendons taken from one part of his body and put into his arms — he made medical history. My little brother would recover. He was the only one that didn’t make the front pages. I would have a cast for about 2-3 months. We lived in a 5-story walk-up in the Lower East Side and my mother, a petite woman barely five feet tall, would carry me up those five stories.

So, imagine that. Imagine you’re a single young mother of four, living in poverty, who now had to visit the hospital every day to tend to your husband, oldest son ( I was about 7-8 years-old), and toddler. On top of everything else, her parenting skills were being questioned by family and friends.

“Why was her son playing the streets?”

“Why did she leave her infant child unattended?”

To this day, I don’t know how my mother kept it together. Actually, I know part of the reason she didn’t go stark raving mad. We had family. We had our tribe, our community. Immediately, a cousin was sent to our apartment and she would help with caring for my sisters while my mother would visit the three different units at Bellevue Hospital. Family chipped in as they could, and though we lived in a poor community, there was always someone we knew, or who knew someone we knew, that would help if they saw my mother struggling with packages, for example. It wasn’t much, but I have to think that whatever little assistance my mother received had to be a relief for her. So we weren’t really alone. I will never forget those days and everything my mother did.

I would submit that part of the attraction of social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and the rest, is that they offer the illusion of or substitute for community. It is a space where you can come and share and vent. In times of stress, sometimes you can go online and get at least some measure of empathy and compassion from your chosen group. I say illusion because ultimately I believe community should have at least some measure of a physical dimension to it. I can’t touch you, kiss your tears, or hug you. Still, cyber space has become a form of community for many people. We lead lives of quiet desperation in sprawling enclaves that make it almost impossible to commune with one another.

It’s a disease, this fracturing of connection.

I would guess that most reading this would not consider themselves “tribal.” Your community, if you have a community at all, is probably defined by friends and family scattered across an extended suburban sprawl encompassing most of this country. We tend to live, work and play with people of similar education, income, race, age, physical attributes, and worldview. We rarely, if ever, have to deal with The Other. In fact, this is why there’s such a backlash against formerly incarcerated people. We don’t see them as humans, as part of community, because we’re socially incestuous.

We don’t even like our own. We put our old people in homes and our younger ones in childcare centers. Certain lawbreakers of a certain color are put behind bars (where they become worse) and the physically and mentally challenged are kept out of sight. Through our tax dollars, we ask that trained personnel to handle these Others so that we don’t have to. We can get on with our careers and “personal growth.”

Most of the people I know haven’t a clue as to the social skills necessary to live in a real community. We have a lot to learn. How did our ancestors weave their intricate webs of inclusion? What can their experiences teach us about the community’s need for conversation, especially for listening and speaking from the heart? What do tribal people know about ritual, place, and the invisible world that can help us rebuild a community for our children and ourselves? What would happen if we followed the model of the salons of pre-Revolutionary France?

Today, the neoliberal Koo-Aid is about exclusion — who doesn’t belong and why. And this myopic mindset serves as a disease of isolation. We had better learn to live in the company of others or we will surely become the first species to cause our own extinction.

My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…

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