Picture taken of me on The Great Wall of China (circa. Nov. 2008)
This post published on "In Our Ancestors' Dreams" is a reflection dedicated to commemorate the 10th Anniversary of my trip to China. The specific themes and moments reflected in the story helps to capture the experience I had when venturing to China on a sponsored trip in November through December of 2008. The post does not reflect the full breath of my experience but I hope that it provides a window into an aspect of my experience that should lead to a necessary discussion about the destructive nature of anti-blackness.
Setting the Stage:
I would be remise if I did not begin this personal literary endeavor with a story, and one that provides the background for how I received the opportunity to travel outside of the country as a teenager.
It all began with my freshman year of high school at the International Studies School at Garinger. Anyone familiar with Charlotte, the Charlotte area, and The Charlotte Mecklenburg School System (CMS) knows the name Garinger. If, however, you show them my diploma or mention the name of the school I graduated high school from, they might be far less knowledgeable. Before I entered high school, Garinger was considered one of the worst school's in the school system. It was deemed low performing as it relates to test scores and graduation statistics, but along with that came a perception (based in some reality) of a student population prone to violence and crime. In short, Garinger was not a place that most parents (and the students themselves for that matter) wanted their children to be.
We had a thing called "home schools," which meant that if you lived in a certain area, you were more than likely going to attend the home school designated for your neighborhood area. About a year or a couple years prior to my entering into high school, the home school designation for my neighborhood was changed to Garinger. This was a fact that did not sit well with me. The inevitability of becoming a student at Garinger became interesting when it was announced that the school would begin the process of becoming five schools in one. Each of the five schools would have their own distinct name with "at Garinger" at the end to signify it was the Garinger campus. This was an initiative implemented at Garinger and a small selection of other schools (although to a lesser extent), who had the designation of being a "Title I" school. This essentially meant that it was an "at risk" school teetering on the brink of more serious action by the school system and possibly city/state. Freshmen that year had the option of entering into the two new schools on Garinger's campus - International Studies and New Technology, respectively. Freshmen who were not enrolled in the two schools their freshman year would have to choose or be placed in one of the eventual five separate schools by their junior year. My mother and I chose the International Studies School, in part because of the principal and being sold on the vision. In addition, to me choosing the school, I would have to choose what foreign language I would enroll in for the fall. I didn't want to take Spanish, as it seemed like most people chose to take it because it was familiar (second to the African American population was the Hispanic/Latino population). I chose the other language being offered at the time - Mandarin Chinese. And the rest, as they say, is history.
My interest was peaked long before I was presented with the option of what foreign language I would study in high school. Aside from wanting to study a language that was more unfamiliar than the other option, I was interested in studying Mandarin Chinese because it would provide me with the opportunity to learn about a people and a culture from someone that was born and raised in that culture. I would later meet Mrs. Wang who absolutely provided us with more than we could have asked for as it relates to language application and the cultural relevancy of what we were learning in her classroom. This was invaluable for me, especially considering the propaganda that we were receiving and continue to receive from the government and media about China. With that being said, there are serious human rights violations that need addressing in the same way that the United States's violations need addressing. But the reality is that there is so much more to the people and country than the type of government they are under. In addition, my intrigue began as a young child who grew up loving Bruce Lee and the movies he made. This might be silly to some, but it was true for me, particularly due to the legacy and influence of kung fu/karate as an art and in film within the African American community. I welcomed the experience I perceived I would have studying the language.
Origins of the Trip:
The trip to China took place in my junior year and was alluded to even in our freshman year. There existed vague conversations about students committed to the study of Chinese receiving the opportunity to go to China. Those conversations, however, felt less and less like a reality that we would be able to take advantage of. I believe I felt this way because of some of the financial burden that it would incur. And in an effort to not make it seem as though I was so special, my friend and I were not even the first to actually travel to China from our school. The summer of 2008 was the same summer that the Olympics were held in Beijing, China. Two of our classmates, through a program that they received the information for through our school, travelled to the country and were in Beijing while the Olympics were taking place. They were there for a month. When we returned to school in late August to begin our junior year of high school, they shared their experiences with us, and the doorway to the possibility of taking this trip became clearer and wider to me. The question was still, "How exactly was that going to happen and what would it look like?"
A local organization/company called "The Light Factory" became the channel by which the loose promise of being able to travel internationally to China became a reality for us. The Light Factory is an organization that teaches about and showcases photography exhibits in their gallery. I, and the school, had a relationship with The Light factory through various projects that they had going on in the community and in schools. One of those involved a project where we
were photographed as "The Faces of a Dream Coming True" as a way to commemorate Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King's legacy (we were so hopeful and optimistic then). Oh, what a difference a decade makes! You can see the news article that was published in The Charlotte Observer to the right (or below, if you're reading this on mobile). My picture is featured in the top right (me without loss!). The bottomline is, the relationship was already established before the trip became a reality.
The Light Factory was in the process of finalizing the details behind a trip they were planning to China. They would bring a group of students on a trip where they travelled throughout China photographing and chronicling, through journal entries, the experience. The students would then return after a few weeks to document the experience with a theme from each of their own unique perspectives in an exhibit. Leaving the details behind our joining the trip on the cutting room floor, me and one of my best friends in life were the two students from our school who were selected to attend. There were about 16 students in all, with most of them coming from North Mecklenburg and Providence high schools. There would also be several adults, of course, that joined us, which included an African American man that worked for The Light Factory, who I very much respected. My friend and I were also the only two African American students, with my friend actually being an immigrant (although very young when her family moved) from Nigeria. We also received a scholarship to help cover the expenses associated with the travel. Nevertheless, we were about to embark upon a trip that, unfortunately, most never receive the opportunity to engage with. What I was about to experience I could not have prepared for, and I was awakened to a world and reality that would fundamentally shape the person I was already and the person I was becoming.
The flight seemed like it took forever, but when we finally reached our destination, none of that mattered anymore. The first place we visited was in fact, Beijing. We had the unique opportunity to engage with Chinese students at a local school. These students were enthused to share with us the things they were working on and their experiences as students. It is mainly from my interactions with them that I developed what became the focus for my part of the exhibit in The Light Factory. That theme centered on the idea that although the Chinese people, and more specifically the students, may be on the other side of the world, we share far more in common than we realize. It was fairly simple, but it was a message that I believed needed to be articulated generally and in our community.
I also developed this conclusion based on the time we spent at another school later in the trip. I loved basketball as a child and teenager and I played the sport. It will remain my favorite sport until the day I pass on from this earth. We played an intense game of basketball with a group of students, who shared that love for the game, especially in light of the olympics taking place months before with the greatest players in the world competing right in their backyard, so to speak. And yes, this is a picture of me dunking the basketball back when "ball was life." These were some of the best moments on our two week journey, but unbeknownst to me or my friend, we would experience something in Beijing that profoundly shaped both of us. It led to conversations that we still have to this day with one another and in broader circles.
Shock & Awe:
It was in Beijing specifically that my friend and I experienced anti-Blackness outside of the United States or the west. We experienced a specific form of anti-Blackness as well - erasure. It was at once subtle and at the very same time oh so blunt. As the group traversed through the city streets of Beijing, we were routinely greeted and stopped by people, mostly young, who wanted to interact and mainly take pictures with us on their phone cameras. Being the only two students, and people for that matter, with our group, aside from our guide, who was from and lived there, who had some speaking knowledge of the language, it seemed to be a perfect opportunity to test our skills out. We weren't going to have perfect accents because we were not that far yet, but even with an American (U.S.) accent, we would still be able to hold a marginal conversations. This certainly became useful as we negotiated with vendors on the pricing of their merchandise, but I will explore that aspect of the trip in another post about the trip. Suffice it to say, we were ready for those interactions.
Something strange happened, however, the first time someone walked up to us to interact and take pictures. My friend and I were completely ignored. Now, I don't mean we were not seen, or that we were straggling behind, so me missed our opportunity. We were in a sense - invisible. I have both been recognized as a deeply humble person, but someone who it can never be said lacks confidence in himself (I contain multitudes). My friend, on the other hand, doesn't have an egotistical bone in her body, so it was no appeal to vanity that she noticed along with me that there was something odd about what had just taken place. Nevertheless, we simply brushed that encounter off and geared up for the rest of the journey. When this very same thing happened a second time, there was an uneasiness beginning to settle within us. Once was enough, but you don't have to show me something more than twice for me to begin to see the picture clearly. They say third times the charm, but then the fourth time turned into the fifth time, and so on and so forth. We were both baffled. We were stunned. Everything, at least for me, needed to be called into question. Why did so many Chinese people we encountered that day and in the days to come in Beijing literally ignore our very existence, but rushed to the white people walking side by side us in our very same group?
And please don't mistake me being perplexed and seeking answers for what may seem trivial with a need for attention. One thing that I have always been aware of, even then, was the ease with which me as a Black person within a space occupied by the vast majority of non-Black, especially white, people can be tokenized. Even more detrimental, there is the potential for me to viewed with some sort of fascination, as if I were otherworldly or a rare sighting. These sort of spaces resign themselves to being places where a Black person is ignored or asked to entertain in some way. Your physical body, culture, and other people's perceptions of who you are become how you're interacted with. It's almost as if a menstrel show is expected, which shouldn't surprise us that much as menstrel's were literally one of the largest and most successful forms of entertainment in the United States. So no, to become that was not a goal of mine, nor that of my friend. It truly had serious implications that we had to genuinely and sincerely grapple with.
This experience brought me back to the feelings I had when reading "Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison as an even younger young man years prior. That was one of the first books I read, where I felt as though the words articulated on the pages captured my experience and what I was feeling as a young Black African American boy. And it was published in 1952. "Invisible Man" dealt with the Black or African American identity and plight, if you will. The evil of racism and all of its social, political, psychological, emotional, cultural, and spiritual ramifications are explored so brilliantly in this work. At the core of the central character's invisibility is a refusal of others to see his humanity. That is what is invisible in the early twentieth century society that he finds himself in. Ellison writes a line in the book that typifies what I am saying here, “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me,”
No single line more perfectly captures what my friend and I were experiencing than that excerpt from "Invisible Man." This was not the end of the story, however, because we discovered something integral to understanding the phenomenon we were unfortunately experiencing. When we left Beijing, we traveled throughout the southern countryside of the Yunnan Province. Here, there were not the encounters with eager cameraphone ready local citizens, mainly because of the drastic shift in lifestyle we encountered. They were more concerned with their daily routines than paying attention to any of us. Furthermore, many of the local people had darker skin, generally speaking, than those we encountered in the cities. This is mainly due to their work being outside, where they would naturally be tanned. Additionally, it just seemed like a different atmosphere, and overall, it was a refreshing change of pace for a time. After we left the Yunnan Province, we journeyed to Shanghai. In Shanghai, the erasure that we experienced in Beijing was virtually non-existent. This part of our travel was like a complete 180 degree turn from what had come before. What also became abundantly clear to us about why our experiences with the people varied so drastically was the role influence and contact played. Shanghai is more of a commercial location, and because of that it is frequented by quite a few African and non-Chinese people. To further exemplify this point, this was also where we met a group of Black Women (African American and African immigrants to China) who actually lived there. They relocated for business. This was a refreshing experience, as we got to connect with more Black people. we had spent the entirety of the trip experiencing being a minority within a group that traveled to a land, where they were the minority. We were a minority within a minority. The point is, however, that Shanghai experienced a certain level of contact and familiarity with non-Chinese people.
In contrast, Beijing looks far more like a scene from New York City in the United States. There was also a visible influence of western imagery. It was and remains safe to draw the conclusion that the influence of the west, which includes attitudes and perspectives about people explicit or implicit, was greater in Beijing than elsewhere. If people receive messages about a certain people, or they are provided with imagery and a narrative that excludes said people, all while never encountering them, the level of ignorance when they encounter them will be greater. It's the same for those in the United States, particularly white people, who grow up in an insulated town, where they never encounter anyone that doesn't look like them. When they meet them, they are liable to say or do something that demonstrates their ignorance. This is what we experienced while in Beijing. They were not asking us to touch our hair. They just simply chose to not engage with us, all while they did engage with those whose images and narrative they had been inundated with.
This particular experience within the broader context of my trip truly opened my eyes to the realities of anti-Blackness on a global scale. I became much more familiar with how the western attitudes and classifications of race have left an indelible impact on people around that world. This is not only the case in China, but it was my first hand initiation into the realities that Black people throughout the entirety of the African Diaspora face. That experience helped to further mold me into the person I am today. It's informed my activism, work in education, and even my spiritual growth. We have to be rooted globally if we are to dismantle the systems that are entangling us all in a life draining way. It is our responsibility to replace them with life giving attitudes, culture, spirituality, and socio-political structures. I regret nothing about having this part of my experience, and I regret nothing about sharing it. It was an important moment in my life's journey that is continuing to unfold each day.