Walking the American Border

I am thinking of taking up a new hobby. It’s called wall-walking. I want to hike along the main walls in the world, built to separate communities. Imagine being outdoors, face warmed by the sun, dreadlocks quivering in the breeze. Open skies. The wall pointing the way ahead. One could not possibly get lost, as the wall is always there.

I have hiked along Hadrian’s Wall in Britain. Built by the Romans some 2,000 years ago, to the north were the barbarians and to the south was civilization. The wall snaked over the tree-less, scrub-covered moors. Up close it was solid, massive stone blocks cemented into place. From a distance it was a mere ribbon of beige, fighting not to disappear into the earth.

Hadrian’s Wall worked for a while. Until the barbarians breached it. Freedom fighters will fight. No wall is high enough to contain their hunger to be rid of conquerors. Even the ones offering improvements such as wine, roads and hot baths.

My next wall-walking stop would be the Great Wall of China. The mother of all walls, meanders some 21,000 kilometres over the land. This wall failed too. The Mongols jumped over it with their horses. Genghis Khan built an empire, stretching from Asia to Europe, beyond the length of the wall. The wall became the trade route for ideas, news, silk and spices.

I can still see the Berlin Wall falling, in my mind’s eye. Bats and hammers smashing the symbol of a divided country. I can hear the cheers as Germans waltzed in the streets. The wall had failed. I want to see the remnants of it, kept as a souvenir.

Who builds the walls has the most to fear. The enclosures may have started as a symbol of their power, but ended as a relic of their impotence.

Closer to home, I will have to trek along the newest wall in the world. Trump’s Wall. It will be built along the USA-Mexican border. It will slither over some 3,000 kilometres of desserts, mountains and rivers. The wall is ‘to make America great again,’ by keeping the Mexicans out. Some 150 years ago, the border was further north. The USA states of Texas, Arizona and California were all part of Mexico.

All the long walls failed in history. Why should Trump’s Wall be any different?

Sailing on a Half Moon

Washington: In the Footsteps of History

As the Obamas walked up the steps of the Capitol Building, I promised to do the same one day. To me, their inauguration was ‘the dream and the hope of the slave.’ In the last month, of their last year, as President and First Lady of the USA, I finally made it to Washington.

Stepping out of the train station, the white dome of the Capitol Building glittered in the weak winter sunshine. The beacon was our landmark. As long as we could find it, we would never get lost in the compact city.

We scampered up the steps of the Capitol, then along the surrounding wide avenues and parks. I was trying to find the spot of a shot from Twelve Years a Slave. The Capitol’s dome glittered there too, in the background, as the slaves were stripped, whipped and shackled in a slave pen.

A cool wind played with my dreadlocks as we ambled along the Potomac River. Ignoring the map, we figured it was more fun just to drift and see where the water took us. The river was wide, and too deep to swim across. As it was winter, no tour boats bobbed in the water.

Across the bank, we spotted the Jefferson Memorial. The Greek-style temple was serene, it’s dome round and perky like a full breast. The lone figure of the man peeked through the columns. Perhaps he was missing Sally Hemmings. Would she have wanted to join him, I wondered? He was her lover, her owner, and the father of their enslaved children.

Did Jefferson think of his children as he wrote the Declaration of Independence – “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”? I think he did – but only of his White ones. His Black children were mere property, their names neatly recorded in his ledgers, along with his other 600 or so slaves, the cattle and the bushels of tobacco.

Groves of cherry trees lingered over the banks of the Potomac River. We strolled along, dodging a few runners and cyclists sharing the river-walk path. Pocahontas lived along this same shore. She sailed from here to visit the queen and king of England in 1615. Her gift of tobacco was sweet to them, and in the end, the herb was bitter for Native and African Americans.

“Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” This was carved into the Martin Luther King Memorial. We stumbled across it, on the right bank of the river. King stands tall, as he emerges from a mountain of solid rock. Arms folded, he gazes across the water. Perhaps he was having a long chat with Jefferson. Separated by two centuries of history, the two men were still talking about race.

President Obama came to the same spot on the river once – to pay his respects to King. People milled around the memorial, waiting for their turn, to stand at King’s feet and pose for the classic photograph. We did the same. At King’s feet was a single red rose.

The Potomac was the River Jordan for slaves. On its south side were the slave states. Cross the river, and you were almost free. Black fishermen and clam diggers worked the river, fishing for news and food. At night their catch included fleeing slaves, gently shown the way north, and another stop on the Underground Railroad.

Twilight was near as turned away from the river, and followed the signs to the Lincoln Memorial. The temple was magnificent. I looked about the vast hall, above and around the statue and these words caught my eye, carved into the wall. “These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war.” Lincoln said this speech in 1865, at the end of the civil war.

We ambled down the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, standing on the exact spot, where a century later Martin Luther King delivered his I Have a Dream speech. A quarter of a million people stood before the Civil Rights king, as he once again pleaded for justice.

In the distance, the Egyptian-inspired Washington Monument pricked the sky. Capitol Hill seemed to quiver in the fading light. The National Museum of African American History and Culture appeared like the upper decks of a ship, its sails aloft in a full breeze. We sauntered towards it, the image of a slave ship drifting in my head. The museum, Black Lives Matter, and the Obamas, are the after-life of slavery.

Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir of Travel and Love

Choices: Marriage or Academia?

Like mosquito bites the professor’s words stung. The more she talked the more the bites itched. I willed myself to continue listening, ignoring the angry rash spreading in my spirit.

The professor introduced herself in class by summarising her accomplishments and climb up the academic ladder. Her achievements were many. Then she added a few personal details. She was married, this I expected. She had two children, this I did not expect. It was the first mosquito bite.

I did my first degree in England, switching from chemistry to international relations. As expected, there were no female professors in the science faculty. There was only one in my social science department. Three years of school and only one woman to show the possibilities of an academic career. At that point I decided it was not for me.

I did not want to end up at aged thirty, single, childless and old, facing a group of adolescents dissecting me with their pitying looks. Scanning my fingers for a ring, ears pricked for any hint of a life outside of lectures, books and exams.

Male professors aged thirty were fanciable, even in their corduroy pants, sensible shoes and jackets with elbow patches. A whiff of Old Spice enhanced their appeal. Female professors were a different a different chemical combination, smelling more like hydrogen sulphide than Chanel No. 5.

A decade later I did my master’s degree in Canada. Half of the professors were women (White). Hiding behind the gender parity was another reality. Most of the female professors were either single, divorced or childless. The male professors were the ones who were married with children. Once again, I decided that academia was not for me. Female professors were lonely old maids – albeit superbly educated lonely old maids.

And now, some two decades later, in my PhD class orientation, was a woman living the life that I had walked away from. She was my age. She was an academic. She was married with children. It should have been me. The mosquito bites blistered in my spirit.

Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir or Travel and Love

Moonlight: Race and Space on Film

Moonlight plays with expectations is so many ways, as a coming-of-age drama of an African American boy. As expected the film is set in an urban landscape, in this case Miami in the 1980s. There are the requisite pastel colours, fancy cars and the drug trade. Crack fuels the life in the city. The urban ghetto space is familiar and therefore the story seems predictable.  It is not. Multiple waves of meaning and knowing ripples through the film.

In one moving scene the boy hero enters the sea. Held in the strong arms of his drug-don mentor, the child is suspended in the water, his limpid eyes flickering between fear and trust. His baptism could go either way. The scene churns expectations – it is simply a set up for swimming lessons. It is worth seeing the film for this scene alone.

It is so rare to see African Americans in an outdoors space, where they are enjoying nature and not fleeing from race-based violence. It is just as uncommon to see a Black working-class man as a loving father figure, gently encouraging a child to try something new.

Moonlight drowns another stereotype about Black men and the spaces they are expected to occupy. Black, gay and living in the ‘hood are a taboo combination in popular culture. The film tackles this head on.

The hero does not believe the message from his mentor that gay love is just another form of love. He believes the screams from his mother and the ghetto – gay men make perfect punching bags.

James Baldwin made all the characters White in Giovanni’s Room. Black gay men in love was such an explosive issue in the 1950s, that he could not even float the idea in his novel. Moonlight reflects how far we have come. It queers the ‘hood.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London

Joining the One Per Cent Club. Is It Worth It?

‘Be humble. Be open to new ways of learning. Be ready to unlearn some things.’ A professor repeated this mantra many times during the first few weeks of seminars. He reminded us that we were now the elites in the education system.

Behind his words I heard a challenge: would we behave like all other elites, and think that we got here just by sheer hard work, and are therefore entitled to all the benefits of being on top of the pyramid? Or would we remember how things are now stacked in our favour?

I have never belonged to an elite club. But I do belong to a point one per cent club – the illusive group of Black people who enjoy outdoor activities. Go ahead and roll your eyes, chuckle in disbelief. I am used to that reaction.

Thanks to starting the PhD, I have now joined an elite one per cent club. This is proportion of people who hold the advance degree in most countries. Some 25 per cent of Canadians are university graduates according to Statistics Canada 2013 National Graduate Survey. This is such a middle-class norm that it long ago ceased to have any meaning for me. Middle-class kids go to university, it is simple as that. Of course, it is a whole different game for working-class children, but that is another story. I had no idea that with a PhD I am now among the privileged of the privileged.

In Canada there are about 210,000 PhDs and about 4,000 joining the exclusive club each year.  According to Statistics Canada, we need to produce double the number of PhDs to keep up with the USA and the rest of the developed countries.

The modern PhD started in Germany in the 1850s. The programme was so successful that it spread first to the rest of Europe, Canada and the USA, and then around the world. Is the PhD worth it?

Before applying for the PhD I interviewed six professors – I wanted to make sure that my idea was not full of lead. Most of them told me that my chance of getting an academic job at the end of it were about as good as turning ice into diamonds. Both are sparkly and shiny, but only one is a girl’s best friend.

It takes about ten years of study to get a PhD. From the Statistics Canada report a lot of PhD graduates will ride off into the sunset – of temporary, low-paying, part-time jobs, as academics for hire.  Few of us will make it to be professors with benefits, high salaries, and each year a fresh crop of underlings to sing our praises (at least in front our faces).

The figures are sobering. A person with a bachelor’s degree earn a median income of $53,000. For a master’s it is $70,000. And for a doctorate, wait for it, it is a whopping $75,000. Four extra years in school for a fistful of extra dollars. A PhD is pretty much a waste of time financially, especially for those not working in academia.

So why am I doing it? Well, I don’t have the skills of a nurse, teacher or construction worker. They all earn more than a PhD after considerably less years in school.

I am not doing the PhD for bragging rights either. Okay, a little bit for that. I am doing it because I like to learn. It is a chance for me to research something that interests me. And I hope at the end of it that I will shift from the one per cent to the thirty per cent club – that is the number of PhD graduates who actually become academics.

Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir of Travel and Love

Ugly Buildings Kills Ideas

It is big, squat and ugly. I am talking about the building that shelters my academic department. It is twelve floors of Brutalist architecture that is more like a fortress than a place for producing knowledge. The concrete and brick entrance is as pretty and inviting as a dungeon.

Entering the building does not put me in the mood to study – I am more tempted to turn right around and go back home. I will get to know this building well as I have four years of a PhD ahead of me. The lecturers, the seminars and meetings will all take place in this drab colossus.

Zaha Hadid where are you when we need architecture that is memorable and a feast for the eyes? I love the fluid curves of your Heydar Aliyev Centre and the Guangzhou Opera House. Oh, I just remembered – you are dead.

I quickly pass through the ground floor of the building, busy with students lining up to buy tea in the café, or chatting in loud groups on the fake leather black sofas. The students look so young. Many more people mill around the bank of elevators waiting for them to arrive. There are eight elevators, but they never seems enough for the fidgeting crowds.

Most days I head for the lounge on the twelfth floor.  What a difference a view makes. The lounge has glass walls on three sides and is flooded with natural light. Looking outside I get a bird’s eye view of Toronto. What strikes me is how green the city is – trees line the grid pattern of streets in every direction.

Psychology studies show that a natural view is not just pretty, it calms the mind and encourages focus. Living walls are the latest trend in office architecture – a wall of real plants changes the energy in a space for the better. The lounge has the next best thing – a view of the thousands of trees in the city.

Half of the lounge has high desks, with hard chairs arranged in strict rows. They are filled with students glued to their laptop screens, most with headphones on. Their message is clear – serious people are at work, do not disturb. I wonder how many are watching porn as they work.

The straight line furniture is too modern, too industrial and too cold for my taste. Psychology backs this up too – straight edges are less appealing. Straight lines in a windowless room are deadly for the soul; therefore, I refuse to get a student office. I had a meeting in one of these rooms; it had as much personality as a prison cell.

The seats at the opposite end of the lounge encourage lounging. The furniture is full of curves and arranged in semi-circles. The seats are soft and covered in fabric. The walls, carpets and furniture are all in shades of blue, grey and cream. These colours are relaxing and trigger creativity.

Plopping down, I look out the window and watch the clouds skipping in the sky, playing hide and seek with the sun. The CN Tower shimmers in the distance. Behind it Lake Ontario fades from cobalt blue to grey as it meets the horizon. Over the next two hours I constantly glance at the view. It encourages me to study.

When I am comfortable at home – a cup of tea handy, a treat of fresh dates on plate and jazz on the radio – and don’t want to go into that ugly university fortress, I remember the view from the twelfth floor window. Its open expanse of sky, trees and horizon, is enough to get me to go there.

Sailing on a Half Moon

Why Do I Feel Like a Fraud?

“What on earth am I doing here? I don’t understand a word of what they are saying.” The thoughts hammered in my head as I looked around the room. Everyone looked younger and smarter than me.

I chose my seat well – the one in the corner, close to the exit, at the back of the room. My confidence was as high as my toenails – and I had forgotten to paint them.

The speakers spoke without notes. I heard them talk of the wonderful opportunities in the department, the encouragement to discuss ideas and to be part of an academic community.

I sat with my arms folded trying to follow them. My head throbbed. I must have made a mistake. My wonderful research idea seemed rather silly now as I could not follow the speakers’ words.

“Why on earth did I want to go back to school at mid-life?” Other things were an easier way out of my mid-life crisis – skydiving; anonymous sex, lots of it; volunteering at the dog shelter. But I had tried none of those. Instead I chose to study for a PhD.

Professor this and professor that gave speeches. I recognized some of the names – they wrote the articles and books that I read and cited in my application. I never expected to meet them in the flesh. My confidence toppled to the floor – I could not think of a single question to ask them.

One professor asked about my thesis. She stopped me half way through saying she remembered the application and was glad to see that I had made it through. I thanked her, she was just being kind I thought.

The other students tried to reassure me that I was in the right place and would soon pick up the lingo. It seemed easier to learn Sanskrit, Ancient Greek or Cree. I slunk out of the room.

The imposter syndrome is quite common among first year PhD students, I later learned. We are used to being seen as egg-heads, geeks or nerds, but now we feel like fakes – seemingly smart on the outside, but stupid inside.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London