1. Toast to Obama From June 2010-Jiangsu, China
“Obama,” he says raising the glass to toast.
He’s got one hand palm up beneath the glass and two fingers from the other gently hold the tiny shot glass about a quarter of the size of the ones we kick back in America. He’s holding a splash of liquor no bigger than an index finger like it's the most important trophy in the world.
We sync eyes and raise our tiny glasses and stare across the room into each other’s eyes. It’s the language I know he knows. The one that speaks best, here in the field.
The lazy susan spins with cigarettes, noodles, eggs, rice, a bowl of catfish stewed, clams, and cauliflower pan-fried with peppers. The last is my favorite. The food is the best. Plenty of vegetables and they always ask me what I want. Almost like my Mama is cooking on my birthday.
Etiquette suffices. I am that far away from home. Not too much salt. Very little sugar. Fruit for dessert. Watermelons are in season. Sometimes there is watermelon juice. On the street watermelons everywhere. Chinese people posing in front of them. Watermelons for sale.
It’s all more abundance than exotic. Like the season that belongs to the harvest of the watermelon. It is a question of time. But I must say, the clear liquor packaged in boxes painted so elaborate makes me feel like it is Christmas. We celebrate each feast of the foreigner with them. I watch my hosts open them like origami. There is an unfolding followed by another unfolding with the liquor inside.
When I hear the sounds in the room, I remember the last feast. The feeling in my head after being satiated by food and wine. I have work to do. Yes, I have work to do.
Every time it begins with the cardboard rubbing against paper and then the sound of the plastic being ripped off the top, followed by the liquor gurgling like a thirsty man as it gets poured into the tiny cups.
The drinking tests me. I drink back home, but not for games. Rarely toast. Suspicion tells me they are testing me, trying to see how much I can take. We’ve done it enough now, that I begin knowing I am beat. I will reject some liquor, or half pour a tiny shot into my glass.
Sometimes I fear the sound of the box opening. Some days it starts too early. Noon sometimes, followed by dinner. It becomes sport and exhaustion. By the time everyone starts grinning, slightly red in the face, I know I am done.
And if they start talking about Obama and smiling it gets worse for me, cuz I’m officially part of the Obama clan. Worthy of ten thousand toasts.
We are in China and on the edge of the field. My knowledge of the language is not worth mentioning, but I know a smile. I know the sense of elegance. Dark skinned deacons praying for the good church, the movement forward, the sanctity of the body of Christ. The ushers who hand you a fan. After the praying ritual, the sermon to God and the congregation, the spooning of food onto your plate. The simple kindness. The work of the field elevated to religion. The feast of the congregation.
It’s like that. The field is around us. I know these Chinese folks work hard. I can see it in their eyes, sense it in their movement. But here there is a softness refined. It seems the harder the work the more elegant the ritual. The more enjoyment. They know the opposite. I know that, though no one says it in anyway I can understand. I only understand the smiles, the arc of the fingertips, the way food is sometimes gobbled down with fury. Or the gentle ease back from the table. The beaming grin.
So it is on the edge of the field in the longest standing empire on the planet. Etiquette balances work. Ritual is form for energy.
It is their possession.
And though our history is shorter, America is like that too. In the age of Trump, I think of the men and women standing on the edge of the American field. Golden fields of wheat, from sea to shining sea, and God Bless America. The field is intoxicating. The work is simple. A gun is really not as important as the earth itself and the sky, the Church, and the chance to be polite on Sunday. To cook food. To help. To aid. To Make America Great Again.
I hear the cry for the return to simplicity, though the bucket is full of abstraction.
Though we may argue for the rest of our lives about the news and politics, if I could stand with them on the edge of the field and look into those certainties, I think we could get along.
I mean I know they know rain and sun as much as I do. I know they know hard times. I know they believe in joy and the spirit. I know many, so many, love their children and their partners. I know they believe in a better world for those they love. I know they get drunk and fight, sometimes kill. I know they fuss and cheat on their lovers, and curse and scream, rise to fury and elevate into happiness. I know they are people.
I know they know what I know--money and gospel, bills and heavy handed bullshit imported into their homes. I know they make choices that are wrong and good solid ones. I know they know that Jesus is better and more important than whatever guttural urge of the unresolved breaks through the simplicity of their life and becomes part of their pain and suffering.
I know they know the field like I do. Like my mother and father do and did. Like all of us do.
Heaven Earth Fire Water
Wind Moon Mountain Thunder
These constant things. Not the black. Not that white.
The combination of all the things in between.
Years ago, I went to visit my Great Aunt in Gibson County. She’s a Church going woman who lived on the edge of a field in a town that’s only gotta few people. About a mile up the road was the old train depot where they shipped out the cotton a long time ago. The trains don’t run there anymore. She knew the place when it was filled with sweaty folks and the scent of the earth. She knew it when it was cotton picking time.
We went to the grocery store once a week. We ran errands when they needed to be tended to. We were never too busy. She went to meetings at the Church and for political action committees. She went visiting the elders and the old folks. Sometimes we just sat at home and looked at the sky or tended to the garden. Many days I stepped out onto the porch and looked across at the field towards the distance as far as I could see. The sky was present in that gaze, though, I didn’t find it important then. I could see the clouds there. I could see rain coming in, and the tiny slivers of white light flash to some distant place in the field before I heard the thunder.
Sometimes it would rain hard while the sun was shining. The sky could be cut in half with the sun staring on one side into the most beautiful day, while on the other side the rain gushed down. There staring out into the middle of the field under the sky, I remembered my father would say, “The old folks say weather like that is the devil beating his wife.”
At the time, I had recently returned from New York. Now I know I was chasing my father then. He was in my life and not far from me on the on the other side of town, but when he spoke of New York he always got excited. Even if he was silent something became more animate in him when he spoke of New York. His back would straighten a bit, a greater light in his eyes. The spirit in him would rise up, and I wanted to know what that was.
He had migrated there, grabbing a bus up North from Gibson and arrived on 116th Street around 1960 to stay with one of his homeboys, who too was from Gibson. Jimmy Ballard.
It was summer of 1990, almost forty years later exactly when I did the opposite. I went backwards in his life: from the city to the field. I had just finished my first two years of the college at the New School For Social Research’s Eugene Lang College. Before I went, he told me--now you’ll know more about how I grew up.
I would never know the work he knew; but I could stare into the land that raised and gave birth to him.
I could stare into the field.
But I missed the city and its busy, its business.
It had a certain dirt and musk that seemed pasted over everything that I grew accustomed to. I liked to watch the people in Washington Square Park playing music or chess, the strange shows, the lovers holding hands under the arch. I liked the way it gave me something to quench my hunger in immediate ways with its thousand shops and cheap eats. I liked the neon of it, the somethings always happening, the thousand lectures, the many books, the giant size life of it. The thousands in the street everyday headed somewhere I did not know, passing me by, the stare towards where you are going, the focus, the direction.
New York was bang clash smoke, exhaust, cab drivers, and a stench and the crackling of food making its way onto the street. Sirens, and the clinking of glass, the wanderer’s, the bags, the echo of music in the subway station, the odd acoustics of sounds, tunnels of wind shoved through alleys and buildings, the wet from the rain lingering above the asphalt, the snow turned black my the rush and get there. There were dumpsters and shiny glass.
You could stand at the base of a building fifty stories high and imagine it is a mountain made by humans. Your eyes traveling up the edge so that the sky and the end looked more like a point, a dot, a thing much smaller the steel and iron.
In the city, the field seemed almost insignificant. I walked many days there without imagining the earth as a thing that could be planted and honor honest work with yield. Many days without looking up into the sky.
My father told me, “When you first get there folks will know--cuz you always looking up.” I thought he meant they stood in awe of the buildings; but maybe the newcomers were lost, looking up to the sky to find their way. Trying to find that reality over their heads.
Signs and sounds, systems and processes, codes and classifications. The city is abstraction in operation towards the benefit of the many who are there. The many who are its residents.
The city breeds the trust of humans within it, we imagine what we don’t know is already handled by the reservoir of knowledge accumulated by the ten thousand working hands that built it.
What else can we do?
When someone talks about the black now, I listen closely and classify the abstractions. Many who live under the skin of the black, trade and choke in the abstraction. Half the time they just talking shit. Nobody really got to learn the connection between black abstraction and reality, though some choose to study it. They invest in the bank of it answering the questions our predicament demands be answered.
Others trade and choke in it. Imagine they know what they have not studied. They may know the field of it, but probably not the abstraction. The latter is the job of our intellectuals, who are busy studying someone else’s abstraction to survive. Each thought they have must be reconciled with the existing code.
So many don’t know or care to know. Knowing the field is enough. Where I work. How I work. My money right. My vacation. Safety of my family, home, kids. Bills paid-all that. Keep it simple. Like you live in a field, even though many of us don’t.
The ghosts of slavery and all that, the haints of the field, the places where the code breaks down show the path to the work that needs to be done. The Hospital for the Negro Insane, where the confined are given their insanity, as the thing to work upon. The haints of the first field here wandering unresolved. We can easily underestimate the city and the civilization we live in. Whittle it down to our simple tasks--our simple work. It is a human thing to do.
To know there is a sky above you even though you only see a sliver. To imagine that sliver gives you some sense of the weather and the weather coming.
Shit, the devil could be beating his wife and you wouldn’t even know.
Even if somebody told you, you may not believe it.
The Field and The City
Not the Black and the White
Not the binary of it
The Field and the City
When people don’t like something about the black, I now know that I and the black I reside and was born into, am their abstraction; but it can work in all types of interesting and wonderful ways. Such is the toast to Obama. I don’t think I differ from them in terms of the root, but also know how dangerous the gap in understanding is. My history tells me so. I also understand the fear, though I don’t proscribe to it, of the abstraction as the root of policy--the making of decrees, edicts, and laws based on my abstraction and spread throughout the empire to my detriment. I understand the construction of false code. For false code is an important part of the history of the black and those on the bottom of the binary.
Those who make it are uploading their emotion into reality. It’s actually pretty common. They ain’t the only ones; and it doesn’t have to be so, though it may be that way for a good long while.
The T.V. Sets, internet, and music bring portions of the world into our homes that we can only know in abstract. The entertainment feeds us emotion and response. We feel and then we think we know. We are more than ever divided by abstraction. We upload the unresolved into our religion, our nationalism, our entertainment, our music, into the places we like to go and the food we like to eat. Our consumer decisions classify us by what we think and what we imagine makes us feel good. It is urge seeking resolution. Too often we dream a world above us that sings what we don’t understand as defined.
Too often we simply don’t know the weather.
We must add to the binary the city and the field. For it is the bang and clash of the city that confuses us ringing with abstraction. It is the place where the field is simple mind-simple work refined into industry and machine. It is the temple of man. To look at it, to live in it, one might imagine we are gods.
So we can be with the power of abstraction.
In the city, what we take from the field is shaped into huge buildings, mass transit, street food, crime, and the hustle. In the city, the simplicity of the field is tested. We put it on the line to make a living, to do better. When we do not, the concept evaporates. The real abstraction is hard times. We like to know we can make it. We move towards it. When we move backwards we make a religion of the defined abstraction.
We ask who did this to me? What have I done wrong? What caused this?
In those times, we experience pain and suffering. We match these ideas with the abstractions we have been taught. The personal enemies, the public enemies, the hooded KKK cats, and the tatt’d up pistol wielding gonna get mines gangstas. The pro lifers who will not give you welfare, and the baby aborters who take the matter of sending a baby back to heaven much too lightly. The cheaters who hate a man who loves men, and those same sex lovers who know they cheat too.
We find in the invisible world of abstraction and ideas something to ground us to our get ahead. We find an outlet for the unresolved as though it has already been resolved by some previous generation. We borrow the codes and they become our morality.
Yes, we are human.
But an abstraction and a good fight to make it law, don’t rest the heart. Maybe nothing, permanently does. Maybe the heart must constantly resolve whatever comes its ways. The code can help or curse. The code can direct. The code can channel. But the heart must govern mind. The heart must rule the balance between abstraction and the feeling in the gut. The mind must make. The belly must eat. The heart must regulate balance between the two.
Here they toast to my abstraction in the great city of America. Barak Obama, the first black President--a symbol that rises above all the fields and temples of man in the world’s most successful country.
Men with rough hands placing their hand in front of me instructing me where to sit. I know when a man cups a glass with two hands and points it to me he is deep in ritual. Here in the land where there is no official edict that matches with our “religion” in the West; but yet, I sense spirit.
He looks my way, and we stare again into each others eyes for a brief moment before tilting the glass back over our head so that everything goes down.
He points the glass to me and turns it upside down to show that it is empty. I follow his lead and do the same.
Ganbei means bottoms up.
Bottoms up to Obama from China on the edge of the field.