Author: Vicki McGee
Wholy Holy, people we have all got to come together,
‘cuz we need the strength, power, all the feeling…” Marvin Gaye
Wholy Holy, Marvin Gaye, 1970, Motown
“The same people that you’re looking for are looking for you”. I grew up hearing this old adage all of my life, and participating in the recent Holy Names University (HNU) School of the Americas (SOA) and Civil Rights Tour (CRT) was a consummation of the statement. Traveling with nine other people was challenging, yet, it was well worth the effort. As students and staff of Holy Names University, we epitomized the Heart of Oakland, just the way Oakland mirrors to the world, uniquely the most ethnically diverse city in the U.S.
Prior to leaving for the SOA tour, I had busied myself with various Center for Social Justice and Civic Engagement (CSJCE) activities and affairs. One of the most noteworthy events with which the Student Leaders of the SOA trip were involved, was the reception held for author Sonia Nazario in November. Ms. Nazario gave a moving presentation on the research and development of her book, Enrique’s Journey, which chronicles the experiences of a young Hondurean boy searching to reconnect with his mother, who had migrated to the United States. My other campus pursuits included working as a community center senior adult advocate, attending Social Justice Café, Peace and Justice Club meetings, as well as Bay Area Social Justice Week, “Enough is Enough’ National Campaign Against Violence, along with SOA Awareness Week, and serving as HNU campus liaison for the Reading Partners Literacy Program.
It was clear that although some of my travel companions did not have opportunities to really socialize with one another during the trek, substantial relationships had formed amongst us, resulting from our ongoing collective fund raising activities. As a cross-generational and cross-cultural coalition, we were truly ambassadors in many respects – representing Holy Names University, as well as, Oakland, in a big way. After arriving in Alabama, we toured the Kelly Ingram Park, featuring the path of the civil rights movement in Birmingham, visited the 16th Street Baptist Church and the Civil Rights Museum of Birmingham, AL. In the Civil Rights Museum we encountered the most amazingly friendly people you can imagine – southern hospitality was definitely in effect! I overheard some of my associates discussing wanting to relocate to the south because of this exceptional graciousness that was bestowed on all of us! Outstanding amongst the people we encountered during the Civil Rights Museum tours was a senior security staff person at the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum. He was a morph of characters straight out of the TV shows Martin and The Ricky Smiley Show! He made it clear to everyone – use pen and paper only for note taking; no cameras, tablets, smart or dumb phones, while touring the museum. Also, upon spotting my handbag strap dragging on the pavement outside the building facade, he straightened me out surely before I got crooked: “Pick that up, ‘cuz they ain’t got nuthin’ to give ya’ here!
Just as iconic performer’s Aretha Franklin’s song ‘Spirit in the Dark” denotes, it is important to recognize that the essence of one-on-one relationship building is the African tenet for cultural psychic and community capacity development. Alabama is the land of the Choctaw Native Peoples. Dating back to pre-colonial European invasions in the Americas, the Native Aboriginals maintained a communal cordiality as a natural part of their civilization. Many African natives who escaped forced enslavement in the American colonies, bonded with the Native Americans, building strong families and communities, and a dynamic, distinct culture: the constellation of values, norms and behavior guidelines that are shared by a group of individuals. In these societies, a person, although a stranger, was never neglected to be hungry or ignored. Yet the cruel, greedy European intruders betrayed all the benevolence of the host cultures. Many documented texts affirm that the tribal wars that resulted from these betrayals were resultant of the egregious, self-serving aggressions of the colonizers. Several of the tribes were displaced due to the Indian Displacement Act of 1830, to accommodate U.S. white settlements expansion in the fertile lands of the southeast. The lyrics of contemporary singer Angie Stone’s “Karma” sums up the ramifications of those who mistake kindness for weakness:
You know there’s really no need to
Stress or trip over getting even
Because my life is gilded and grounded
And I really believe that karma in itself avenges us
Feel me (Yeah)
Tried so many times to make some sense of it
Unsure about the people in the mix
My sacred intention, my moment to mention
Just what it is I was called here to do
– Love somebody
And when the good gets misunderstood
The repercussions can be cruel
And that ain’t cool
Karma will avenge you
I’ve often seen the faces of despair
And been in situations people don’t care
They take advantage of your every move
That ain’t cool cuz I’m no fool
They monopolize your time
Try to redesign your mind
The very time they use to find
You’re in this love for sharing…
To me the world is stingy with love, everybody for self
And when you finally find love, then people hate you to death
A constant struggle, between you and your mental muscles
Emotional paranoia, with feelin’ nobody loves ya
No one to reach to, gravity seen you
You the one in church that the preachers will preach to
And you’re prayer just for confession, more blessings
Try to get protection from manic depression and keep steppin’
From mean ?? impressions, the supper comes with dressin’
Attached with life and karma and it’s own lessons
And that’s faith and love peace and trust
And never participate with the evil in us
And life ain’t fair when you feel wear and tear
Remember God don’t put more into you than you can bear
And believe that to death
A long journey don’t start ’till the first step
And that’s life…
The welcome that we received wherever we went during our journey through the Southeastern states of Alabama and Georgia was heartening, especially to those who were totally unaccustomed to such genuine graciousness! Yes, Ma’am; no sir; have a good day; and how you doing today? These were but a few of the salutations my fellow travelers and I consistently received. It definitely reaffirmed my gratitude that I was raised lovingly by southerners, who bestowed in me an interpersonal communication advantage over many of my peers. Today, I still am asked “do you know them” when associates inquire after witnessing my interacting with people, whom they traditionally keep at arm’s length, preferring to romance their latest digital devices instead! Along with the magnificent rain we have been experiencing lately in the Bay Area, I made it a point to bring back the radiance of genuine, ol’ time hospitable disposition. “How you doing?”, sure to some it may initially sound corny, but try it – you’ll definitely feel and see the difference being interested in others makes in your relationships!
After lunch at Sweet Tea’s, a soul food restaurant in Birmingham, we traveled to Montgomery, to visit the Montgomery Civil Rights, the Rosa Parks and Freedom Riders museums. A focal point of this visit was the Wall of Tolerance at the Montgomery Civil Rights facility: there you type your name and zip code into a keyboard and your name flashes in bright lights on this screen for all to see! I actually saw my name alongside that of former Atlanta Mayor, Julian Bond. It was truly a phenomenal experience!
The following morning we attended the peace protest march at the Close Stewart Detention Center located in Lumpkin, GA. In this event, I met several kindred spirits who gravitated to me readily. One woman from Massachusetts shared her international activities as a human rights activist not only in the SOA event, but also Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the Ukraine, and South America. Another young woman was accompanied by her fellow classmates from a small college in Wisconsin. I was truly impressed by how easily people shared their respective concerns about challenges people faced globally regarding marginalized communities and the abuse that they are experiencing. A very significant occurrence was the hugging of some of the guards of the Stewart Detention Center by peace vigil participants. It was totally surprising to the on-site personnel, since some of them expected to be ‘rejected’ by the throngs of people who traveled globally to participate in this momentous occasion. My Cherokee-African elders taught me as a young girl that ‘there are no strangers – only friends you haven’t met’.
Proffering compassion towards the staff at Stewart facility definitely demonstrated sharing “Spirit in the Dark” – enlightening others who may be in the shadows of ignorance and clueless as to their contributing to perpetuation of atrocities towards restricted populations. Radiating the spirit of empathy and inclusivity towards them extends the necklace of love, whereby great bridges can be constructed, and walls of unawareness and separation dismantled. The MC at the Stewart Vigil, Antonio, suggested that the facility actually had the potential to be redesigned as a haven for migrants to transform their lives and experience by preparing to embark on new lifestyles in the United States; to raise their families in security and comfort. True love is the conqueror!
After leaving the Stewart grounds, our entourage reconvened at the gates of the School of Americas. We listened as various speakers addressed the atrocities of the SOA, and the lives, families and communities that are impacted because of it. Following our meeting at the SOA gate and lunch, my comrades and I proceeded to SOA Watch November Vigil which was held at the Columbus Trade and Convention Center in Columbus, GA. This was the 25th Conference to date, and its theme was “Comunidades en Resistencia: ¡Presentes!/Communities in Resistance: Presentes!” It featured workshops such as: Fukushima’s Plumes of Disinformation; Economic Imperialism: Resistance to Unjust Trade!; We Want Them Back Alive: Government Disappearances and Murders in Mexico; and People Power & Grassroots Lobbying – New Strategies to Close the SOA, and Connecting Our Work to the Larger Struggle. Initially, I attended the Inclusive Catholic Eucharist; later I checked out the Sing It Down Benefit Concert, held in the Center Hall, which featured several international performing artists, including Sobrevivencia: a Mayan rock band from Guatemala. Eventually, a few members of our group picked up dinner for everyone in our unit and brought it back to the convention center. Later, while I was preparing to leave for the evening to return to our hotel, a petite elderly woman, wearing a bright red SOA Watch tee shirt, noticed my bottle of spring water, stated that she was thirsty, and inquired where she could also get some to drink. I immediately returned to the area where we had eaten our meals, and brought a container of water for her. She was so grateful, and I noted how fulfilling it can be if each one of us could support one another in getting just what we’re looking for throughout life! What a difference a day makes!
During the final leg of our tour, joining in the SOA Vigil and Peaceful Protest was an excellent opportunity to connect with kindred community activists concerned with the issues of international cultural oppression/violence, along with rectifying regional social and economic disparities. It also served as a great way to cultivate collaborative allegiances with individuals of diverse backgrounds, perspectives and talents, interested in improving national and global societies. There was prayer, music, dance and the Progression of the Crosses (in the rain). Despite the two police buses parked in the sidelines of the SOA facility, in anticipation of disrupting personalities, much to the chagrin of the SOA staff, this was truly a peaceful event. All the activities: songs, prayers, open theater and spiritual procession of the crosses were conducted in quite an orderly fashion, and contributed to a superb finale to a momentous experience! We packed up the rain along with our luggage, to head back home to the Golden State.
Interestingly, I can’t omit the fact that on that same day, in route to the airport in Birmingham, a highlight of the trip was my visit to the Eddie Kendrick Park in the 4th Avenue District. Eddie Kendrick was one of the lead singers for the iconic R&B Motown group The Temptations. Think Ain’t to Proud to Beg and Just My Imagination! Some of their most popular tunes totally summarize the social justice issues addressed during the SOA excursion: Ball of Confusion (That’s what the World is Today) and Stop the War!
In participating in the School of the Americas community reflection event, I was able to expand my knowledge base and receive invaluable awareness regarding relationship building with a cross section of individuals sharing their varying philosophies on community capacity building in prevention of international violent militarization campaigns. Also, it enhanced personal and collective growth/support in peaceful restorative social justice pursuits. The tour was motivating and I gained greater sensitivity and awareness of the challenges of curtailed populations subjected to internalized oppressive tactics, economic and social deprivation, as well as, the psychic and emotional isolation they endure.
Upon returning to and continuing studies at Holy Names University, utilizing my writing and creative expressions, and also using multimedia arts technology, I have already been able to translate my newly acquired insights to fellow students, staff and faculty. One young woman, a co-worker originally from Mexico, learned about the SOA trip and the book Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario from me. She bought the book, read it cover to cover and said it ‘changed her life’! She has lived in Mexico City and had no idea of the circumstances there, related to social oppression, immigration and deportation issues.
During the SOA trip, I received an insightful view of people concerned with encouraging the revitalization of humanitarian strategies to sustain and encourage peacemaking/keeping tactics nationally, as well as internationally. The whirlwind journey supported developing my cultural and spiritual enhancement skills, in building bridges of compassion, and giving a voice to those people who might otherwise be overlooked. I am eternally grateful that the same people I was looking for were looking for me. My co-travelers and I remained focused, striving together to reach our ultimate goal: to participate in such a monumental occasion as the School of the Americas Vigil and Civil Rights Museum Tour. The combination of unity, passion, enthusiasm and camaraderie that we shared with hundreds of others from around the world, truly was the Spirit in the Dark needed at the School of the Americas!