Thursday, February 14, 2008

Flying Home

My journey to Africa began with a plane ride to greater Washington, D.C.'s Dulles airport from Detroit Metro. And how ironic is that. It conjured memories of the plane ride I took, 15 years earlier, to Washington D.C. to be with the man I thought was a shining black king, a brilliant man who would take me to Africa.

I never made it there with him.

At one point, as we flew over D.C. I looked out of the window at the landscape below. Somewhere down there was Gabriel. And he was most likely alone. Sick. Lonely, a shell of a man who never quite realized his dream to liberate Africa. And I was on my way to the place that he never thought I'd make it to on my own. And he was right. I didn't make it on my own.

I am grateful for grace, and friends who are saturated with it.

I did not gloat as I passed him somewhere below. I did not whisper, "Hi Gabriel! I'm off to Africa even though you never thought I'd make it, and take that!" I simply noted he was down there somewhere, and I was on my way home. Simply that.

* * *
It was a long ride from D.C. to JoBurg. I had lots of time to think, pray, bond, and share secrets with people who are now so important to me that I ache from missing them and can scarcely wait for our reunion. I prayed the rosary many times, often with tears streaming down my face. I know. Some of you have a real issue with asking Jesus' mom for prayers. But not me. Not anymore. I find great comfort in the communion of saints, and she's His mom, for goodness' sake. In that garland of roses in which I ask her to pray for me now and in the hour of my death, I walk through the entire life of Christ. From annunciation, to his agonizing death, and ultimately to His glorious resurrection. If the devil is in that, he's one dumb devil because it makes me fall in love with Jesus so much more.

When we finally flew over Africa Elysa alerted me, though I'd followed the plane's course on a navigation screen in front of me. And I had all kinds of feelings. Wonder and amazement. Peace. Even nervousness. Gabriel told me once that every time he went to Africa, all the African Americans on the plane meeting the Motherland for the first time wept. I thought I'd weep. I'm a weeper. But dear Lord, I had no idea.

I got started weeping days before my journey, but I'd stifle those tears as quickly as they came. It's good to live in the moment. I wanted my experience to be authentic and firmly rooted in the now. I wondered what my own feelings would be, free from what I was supposed to feel and I didn't want to cry just because I thought I was supposed to. But I did cry, lovies, when it was time. I was going to the place my ancestors long , it is said, many of them, on their own black and shining wings, flew away to. There are testimonies of it:

Some people said that when a Negro died he went back to Africa, but this is a lie. How could a dead man go to Africa? It was living men who flew there, from a tribe the Spanish stopped importing as slaves because so many of them flew away that it was bad for business.

--Esteban Montejo, The Autobiography of a Runaway Slave

And why you hear they say they fly away, they couldn't stand the work when the taskmaster them flog them; and they get up and they just sing their language, and they clapping their hands--so--and they just stretch out, and them gone--so--right back. And they never come back.

--Ishmael Webster, qtd. in Alas, Alas, Kongo

I believe in miracles. I believe some of them flew away, indeed. They left the seed of their longing and faith in me. And now I was flying home. Not on my own wings, but I didn't think they'd mind as long as I got there.

Yes, I cried on that plane descending down to Africa soil. I cried for a thousand, thousand ancestors crowded in my heart. And for millions of brothers and sisters in the States right now who have yet to make it home. I took them with me. Their dreams, their hopes, their longing. And I took with my ancestors stolen names and virtues. Talk about a communion! I wept for every one of my African grandmothers and fathers, now asleep in graves with no markers, who's blood is mingled with American soil.  And I wept for those who's bones have rested in the Atlantic Ocean since the Middle Passage. My entire body was wracked with sobs as I experienced the sweet relief that says, "At long last, home."

We made it. Finally.


Dany and I chuckle together as we land. We look outside, and it looks like every other airport in the whole freakin' world. I want to touch African soil so badly I want to run off the plane and out of the airport, but there's only concrete as far as I can see. I'm finally in Africa, and I can't even see the soil, much less touch it, or kiss it!

Ah, well. Hazy gray African skies with a fine mist of rain will have to suffice. It is the first indication that every romantic dream I have of Africa will be shattered. But at the moment, I took great consolation in the fact that I'd arrived.

I gave thanks.


After several delays, we step outside the of the airport and finally there is soil. I thought I would cry. Kneel reverently and kiss the ground. The ground was muddy and wet. Even I was not that romantic. I kissed my fingertips and touched them to my Africa. One for me, and one for my friend Jen Lemen, who feel in love with South Africa on her mondo beyondo trip last year. I didn't cry. I laughed, the kind of joyful outburst you feel in every part of your being.

I was in Africa!

I think God laughed with me.

Barbed wire is everywhere. It affirms the facts that I'd read. Johannesburg is one of the most violent places in the world. It can eat Detroit's murder capital stats over the years like a mid-day snack. The barb wire strikes a fear in me that I'd revisit again on my trip.

I didn't want to think about my Africa as a violent place. I know about Rwanda and Burundi. I know about the Sudan, and now Kenya. I know about the sins of abject poverty. But I need this trip to be joyful. Beautiful. I don't mind if meeting Jesus in His distressing disguises will break my heart. I expect and even embrace that kind of suffering, but dear God, don't let the people of Africa break my heart because I'm so disappointed in them. How would I endure it?


Africa is astoundingly beautiful. Some say that life began in Africa. I could see their point. It is a garden of lush life. We arrived in the middle of summer, and the land was as excruciatingly alive as any Eden I'd ever seen. Life began in Africa. I know in many ways life began for me in that exquisite place of beauty and terror. And it began in ways I could not have dreamed.

More later...


Elysa said...

Oh Mair. Thank you for starting to share. I need to hear other's words as I continue to work thru what we experienced.

Missing you, missing Swaziland.

ragamuffin diva said...

I still haven't processed all that happened. I'm filled with grief and longing I have no idea how to express. Coming home to lent is another issue for me. I am plunged into an unrelenting journey to the cross that is the most compelling thing in my life, coupled with letting go of one faith community and embracing another which is completely new to me. Another grief and longing.

I can't even begin to think about the book I'll write. Right now it's all a bit much.

I love and miss you, dear. Very much.

Heather Diane Tipton said...

awesome. totally awesome.

Mair-love, I love what you've done with the blog. the sidebar rocks too... and that pic in the header! Totally impressed with you!

And girl! you've got the books coming out this year! wow! I can't wait to read them, every one!

Heather Diane Tipton said...

uh... could I use anymore ! in that comment? sheesh.

wilsonian said...

It was such a massive honour to share a piece of journey. I will never understand all that it meant for you, but it is enough to bear witness for a friend.

And my friend... that piccha up top there is totally rockin'!


Robin said...

I cannot wait to see this place through your eyes; your voice brings it to life in colors not yet named.

What a poetic comma in this life of yours. Thanks for allowing us to share in it.


paula clare said...

Dear Sistuh...Dear Heart!
IT is SO GOOD to hear from you again! I've missed you so...I hope you felt the prayers that were going up for you every day while you were in the Motherland? I thought often and prayed about the things you might be experiencing, and how I wish, OH HOW I WISH, I were there experiencing them with you! Thank you for sharing via your writing and photos...I can't wait to hear more, to see more, to experience more of Africa with you! Much love!

Cathy West said...

Woo! Come on, I want more! Do you guys have pictures anywhere??
We were in South Africa three years ago. My mother was born in a small town in the Freestate, and I have visited many times, but this was my first trip as an educated adult. We flew in to Cape Town and as we drove out of the airport and were immediately struck by miles of shanty towns on either side of the Highway, I wept. I remember thinking how ignorant I truly was, how ignorant the world is.
Africa is indeed a dichotomy of emotions, a shot in the arm like no either. And a wake-up call for the world. I know your life here on earth will never be the same.

Paula said...

Quick! Tell us more!

Anonymous said...

Amazing, truly amazing. Thank you so much for sharing so much of your life with us.

nedra smith said...

Mair, I am so glad you all are back safely. Be blessed in all you do!

Joni said...

I don't know if I can express in mere words what this post is saying to me. I find it incredibly amazing how you were drawn to pray the rosary--a spiritual journey to the heart of Mary and her Son--and at the same time were on a physical journey back to the land of your ancestors...back to the heart of who you are.

Please share more of the journey with us, and more pictures!

Lisa said...

Yes, you get it! You sense the richness of Africa's natural resources against the backdrop of poverty and despair. You see the undercurrent of God's mighty hand at work in the midst of the melee. You touch its complex but compelling history, with its implications for us as Americans of color. Thanks for bringing these truths home. Love to read more when you get a minute.

Esther said...

Mair, I'm touched by your experience. And I love what you say about the Rosary.