I use to be a black queen, at least that’s what *Raphael told me I was. For a ghetto girl with subterranean self-esteem his proclamation sounded like really good news. Nobody saw me as royalty. Sometimes I wondered if anyone saw me at all.
I met *Raphael at, of all places, the African World Festival. This event in the late 80’s was a premier cultural event that took place each summer in Detroit’s Hart Plaza on the waterfront. That August weekend Hart Plaza would be an explosion of color, African music, and all the taste, scents, and textures of a homeland us African American’s because of our painful history were estranged from. Few in our numbers would ever set foot on African soil, so we reveled in the heart of downtown Detroit once a year, because Africa came to us.
I’d looked forward to it for weeks. At twenty-three I was prodigal weary, having left the church where I was a missionary at sixteen, stumbled about until I discovered sex, and it all went downhill from there. Now I hungered for something to fill the Jesus shaped void in my soul. A few artsy friends of mine had discovered Africa. They wore African clothes, and spouted a few key Kiswahili phrases—or whatever African language they could articulate. They weren’t choosy. They seemed to have found a sense of identity in reclaiming the African essence that was denied our great, great, great grandparents who arrived in America, not as immigrants, but as captives. Some of them had changed their names and were now Rafiki, or Sala, Olu, or something as solidly grounded in our estranged homeland as Zaire, or Nubia.
I wanted an identity. I’d forgotten who I was. Africa seemed like a good starting point.
I’d stored up a stash of money from my job at an art supply store to buy African clothes at the festival. You had to look “conscious” too. By conscious we meant, awake, aware, alive to our African identity, and engaged in whatever nebulous idea of struggle we could muster for African liberation world-wide. Unfortunately, for most of us “the struggle” just meant we suffered for being black in America. We were kids. We had no practical applications for saving a continent thousands of miles away. We hadn’t even figured out how to rescue ourselves on the continent we lived on.
I remember with bittersweet irony my excitement that weekend. I felt like I floated three feet off the ground. All of my senses stood at rapt attention.
Seeing *Raphael for the first time was one of those Some Enchanted Evening moments, only I saw him across a throng of festival-goers trying to get their Africa on.
Six feet tall, and high yellow, his fierce face framed by a man of thick ropy, dreadlocks, *Raphael looked like a lion to me. He wore a permanent scowl, and had the unflinching confidence of a dictator. As I looked at him, I truly believe God spoke to me.
“He’s going to be important to you.”
That’s what a still small voice, one I didn’t hear from much at that time, said to me. I knew with everything in me I’d have an unforgettable encounter with him.
And unforgettable it was. I would learn, very quickly, that *Raphael’s intelligence bordered on brilliant. He was articulate, charismatic, compelling. Kind of like the Antichrist. And he was just as deceptive and dangerous.
I fell in love with him. He told me he wanted me to be his disciple. He would take me to Africa and teach me who I am, and where I belong.
According to *Raphael, I was a black queen, lost in Detroit’s Cass Corridor ghetto. He would be my great, black god, and free me from my bondage.
We would change the world.
It didn’t quite happen that way.
He seduced me. I succumbed. I got pregnant in such short order it astonished (though delighted) me. This made me “instant wife” in his book, without the benefit of license, marriage ceremony, prayer between just the two of us or anything else that would really make me feel married to him. I tried to make the best of this sucky situation. I may have been far from God, but I had *Raffi.
At first he called me Queen. Then called me Malaika, his angel. He progressed to calling me a number of unpleasant things like liability, worthless piece of excrement (he did not say excrement), and hefted abuse at me with startling regularity. He called me everything but Claudia.
That was a slave name.
He never took me to Africa.
He said I wasn’t worthy to go to Africa. Yet.
So for four years he dangled it like a carrot on a stick in front of me. Okay, I wouldn’t have wanted a carrot on a stick. We were strict vegans. I had all the carrots I could stand. He held it like the love I craved and dangled some sense of worth just out of my reach. After four years of every kind of abuse—physical, sexual, emotional, spiritual, I left *Raphael, with my driver’s license and social security card in the pocket of my dress. I had to wrap a few dollars in Saran Wrap and insert it in my body like a tampon when I left, because I knew he’d frisk me and take anything that might mean I could truly liberate myself.
I left because God finally convinced me, through a deeply feeling friend who was a dedicated Jehovah’s Witness that he was going to kill me. And he surely would have had I stayed. God gave her a dream that he murdered me, and buried me under the house I worked like a slave—I should have reclaimed my name--to help him buy. In the dream, after he hid my body he went on to Africa, taking our two kids, never to be caught for his heinous act.
I knew it was God speaking. When you are in as desperate straights as I was, and as isolated, God will use whoever He can reach you.
I left after he slapped me around and I was so tired I threatened to kill him. I’m not being facetious. I had a knife in my hand, and I was ready to do the deed and end my suffering at his hand. But I was weak, an eighty-nine pound weakling who was pregnant. I had one shot, and I’d better make it good.
But I knew I couldn’t. He was bigger, and stronger on so many levels. He’d have killed me on the spot a moment of real remorse.
I find it interesting now that he let me take me driver’s license and social security card with me, evidence of my identity. But he didn’t think I was worth anything. Those trifling documents didn’t make a blip on his radar.
I returned home ravaged in the aftermath of his torments. I was an eight-nine pound shell with all evidence of my identity he could get his hands on like shredded wheat in my soul. I couldn’t figure out what my name is. And truth be told, I’ve had trouble with that, even recently! He’d told me if I left with the children he’d hunt us down and kill us. And if he couldn’t find us, he’d kill my mother or my best friend.
I left without my babies. The one I carried within me died in utero a week later.
I didn’t wish I were dead because I already was.
How would I even begin to start over?
With a new man, of course! I was completely out of my mind, but still fertile. I could have new kids. New everything! I could still go to Africa. I could still find a queen. So, I looked up sweet artist I knew when I use to be plain old Claudia. Before I became an African queen. When I was just a ghetto girl with big dreams, who wanted to be an artist.
I asked him to give me a baby, and he did. We gave ourselves new African names. We would steep ourselves in the music, and color, and texture and tastes of Africa that I left with *Raphael, only we’d do it on our (which meant my) terms.
We were a dismal failure.
I tucked my dream of touching African soil deep in my heart. In the fourteen years that would pass, I’d call myself Claudia again. I’d stop going to the African World festival. I’d stop pulling out my kinara every year and celebration Kwanzaa the seven days after Christmas. I’d let the baby have a white doll. I’d stop grieving the regal feeling wearing African clothes afforded me. I’d stop telling the kids about African and African-American heroes and sheroes. The dream of Africa that once burned inside of me seemed permanently deferred. I knew what Langston Hughes meant in his poem:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Does it explode? I suppose it depends on the grace you get while you wait.
My dream did none of the things Langston wrote so poignantly of. It existed on some ethereal realm like frozen embryo with little chance of being born. Yet, it still had the stuff of life in it. And it, like all lives, belonged to God.
It’s 2007. Another deferred dream is now reality. I’m a multi-contracted novelist, in a dry season of writing, writing, writing, and waiting, waiting, waiting for actual books to hit the shelves. That year I grieved the aborted effort of my first novel. And filled the time with rewriting them, and trickling out bits of my work to whosoever asked me for it.
Only three people asked for it. An Orthodox women’s magazine wanted poetry and a book review. A one-year, life verse devotional wanted a little piece about my love affair with poverty of spirit. And Will and Lisa Samson wanted a devotional for their call for social justice, Justice in the ‘Burbs.
Of course I’d do it. Lisa was my BFF!
I begin that meditation was a pivotal work for me, turning me from what I believe amounted to years worth of spiritual navel gazing, to seeing Jesus in the incarnation of the world’s poor and suffering. This is what I wrote:
Jesus lives next door. He’s an eight-year-old girl and her three-year-old brother. The Son of Man looks like those starving Ethiopian children. He only gets breakfast and lunch at school, when he makes it. His mama is a crack whore. Nobody knows where his daddy is. I heard his mama lets her “Johns” do things to him.
Poor King of Kings.
Jesus is two houses down and has six children. Now he’s pregnant with the seventh. I don’t know if he hasn’t figured out what birth control is, or what, but how does he expect his husband to feed all those babies on that salary? And you know with all those kids the Lord of Lords can’t work. That means hardworking taxpayers’ money has to go for Christ’s food stamps!
He needs to get fixed!
The Lord is a crazy man-paranoid schizophrenic. If he doesn’t take his medication, he walks up and down the street, cussing and spitting on everybody he passes. He’s homeless. Nobody knows where his family is-if he’s got one. Digs out of the trashcans for food. Somebody ought to get him off the street.
Jesus is nothing but a nuisance.
I’m starting to see the Son of God everywhere I go. He’s always crying or begging or looking pitiful. Why doesn’t he pull himself up by his bootstraps? This is America! Makes me mad. He’s ruining our neighborhood.
Somebody ought to do something about him.
Despite my earnestness, right away I knew I had a problem. I wasn’t doing anything about Jesus. Not really. But I wanted to.
I started hanging around Lisa’s blog watching like a voyeur as God took her life, spun it like a spinning top, and set her about on a path of change that effected everything from the light bulbs she burned to the life she lived in community with others, believer and non. She cared for refugees. Her fiction changed, and became a call to arms for Christians to become the hands and feet of Jesus. She and her teenage daughter were going to Africa. She’d linked with Tom Davis, President of a mission organization called the children’s hope chest and his passion for AIDS orphans and widows now burned with her.
I’d go vicariously through Lisa. That is until late one night.
I’m greedily seeking rest for the unrelenting feeling of being a lost soul that keeps me awake at all hours of the night. I go to Lisa’s blog. There’s a video. The woman is in Swaziland. I never connected much with South Africa. We, my “conscious” brothers and sisters, were mostly of West African origin. Much of what *Raphael taught me is his warped perception of what it was to be Nigerian. He was not Nigerian. He was just crazy. I think he believed he was Nigerian. He didn’t talk much about South Africa, except to spout his Free Nelson Mandela rhetoric. His lessons did not touch on Swaziland.
I clicked on the little arrowhead familiar to You-Tube video watchers. The frozen image of an black woman, who could have been my aunt, my sister, my mother, grandmother, or even myself, came to life.
Tom was feeding her questions she seemed to struggled to answer. He finally conveyed to her the question he wanted us, back in the United States to hear her answer too.
“What’s the longest you’ve ever gone hungry?”
She nodded her understanding, smiled toothlessly at the camera. “Two months.”
Something in me snapped. In a good way.
I lie back in my comfortable bed, fifty pounds overweight. Two months. The heavenly gavel feel. On the scale of social justice, I had been measured, and found wanting. How could I be fifty pounds overweight when someone in this world hasn’t eaten for two months?
Somehow, I thought because I got foodstamps, and my housing was subsidized through the HUD Section 8 voucher program I was poor. Despite lean days, we never went hungry. Two months!?!
Two months devoured my insides.
I went to my email program. It was three AM. I am notoriously unreliable at three AM. Much of what I say in that hour I mean, but some of it is just my various chemical imbalances speaking. Those emails usually leave me mortified in the clear light of day. But what I said to Tom that night was this:
“I have to go to Africa with you. I have to go for myself. I have to be there. To see for myself. To be with and touch the people. I can’t just write a check.”
But how in the world would I do that?
I wouldn’t. Couldn’t. I had no means for such extravagant love.
Nonetheless, I dreamed again. I met Tom Davis in Atlanta at the International Christian Retail Show. We were both signing books for our shared publisher. I think we saw a kindred spirit in each other, instantly. Only Tom was bringing good news to the poor and needy. And I believed I was the poor and needy.
We laughed and exchanged stories over outrageously expensive coffee. I asked him how I could serve him, and he said, “You are a voice. I need people to hear what’s going on over there.”
Okay, I could be a voice. If only I could get there.
He said he wouldn’t let my lack of money keep me from doing God’s work, if this was His will for me. Tom assured me he’d help me raise the money, and I left him feeling hopeful.
That Tom Davis sure was a man of his word! When I returned home he called to tell me an anonymous donor had paid for my trip to Africa.
God found me worthy, despite my weaknesses and faults, to go.
I can’t even begin to tell you how I felt when I told that to *Raphael.
Pray for me, lovies. I'm on my way.
*I changed his name because someone I love very much asked me to. Thanks, lovies. If his real name was mentioned in a comment I'm removing it. No offense to the commenter. Okay?