This blog article was prepared by Rebekah Williams for The Neapolitan Record, February 2019.
I get really excited about Valentine’s Day. I’m a total romantic and I love that there is a day that’s all about celebrating love. There may be some date-night action for this girl, but I’m also in it for platonic connection: chocolate and cheese fondue party anyone? Valentine’s craft-making with red wine? Yes, let’s do up the red hearts, white doilies, and chocolate. And while we’re at it, can we also build some community around that Hallmark holiday? That’s what I’m talking about!
February is also rich with celebrations of black history; yet as a black woman, I celebrate “Black History Month” every month. During Kwanzaa, a winter holiday that celebrates African-American heritage and culture, we honor the principle of “Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility): To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems and to solve them together.” I know Naples folks prize collective work and responsibility. Consider, for example, the St. J’s 5K and work parties at Fruition Seeds.
Personal health and healing – goals inherent in these events in Naples – are also important components of healthy communities. And health is perhaps nowhere more important than in love – for one another and for our community.
I moved to Naples for love. My partner has introduced me to this wonderful place, the amazing locals, phenomenal live music, beautiful land, and delicious food. And we celebrate our unique cultural differences together. We went to the opening of Marvel’s Black Panther movie last February and we make an annual tradition of eating the Seven Fishes with his family on Christmas. Yet true love, for each other and our communities, also includes holding space for pain and trauma.
An important tell about community health is whether locals show up and hold space for others who are suffering. Holding space involves practicing empathy. The Naples School District held space for its students in 2017 as the community mourned the loss of 11 year-old Maddie (Madeline Barton). Hospeace House volunteers, through their intention to provide compassionate, comfort care for residents in the last three months of their lives, serves as yet another example of Naples folks holding space for people who are suffering.
Standing up against injustice is another way to hold space and in the black community we experience many injustices. An array of disparities exist between white and black communities. We have lower educational attainment and rates of home ownership, and nearly twice the rate of poverty and unemployment as white people. We are also at higher risk of early death and more likely to die from homicide and chronic disease.
For how we might grieve those truths and emerge whole, I look to Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved (and the 1998 film, which starred Oprah Winfrey). That fictional story weaves in real atrocities experienced by black women and families during slavery and comes to a head when Winfrey’s character, Sethe, makes a horrible decision. That choice shackles her with a life of trauma. Meanwhile, another character, Baby Suggs, sees that trauma and supports Sethe’s healing.
Baby Suggs assembles the community and in a striking scene she stands on a rock, black folks gathered all around her, and orchestrates a collective wailing. Sethe is not the only one in pain and Suggs urges the community to release their suffering and their heart-wrenching, aching rage, through tears and screams. This scene exemplifies black love, acknowledging the rage that black women and families may feel because of slavery and the disparities that persist today. That scene exemplifies holding space for rage through witnessing and deep empathy.
Although that story is fictional and from the past, many atrocities that are real continue today. Black women, and girls specifically, experience injustices that stifle our sense of power and confidence and cause continued trauma. According to research, we experience higher rates of sexual violence then women of other races, and more psychological abuse—including humiliation and coercive control.
In January 2019, four middle school girls in Binghamton NY were traumatized when school administrators had them remove their clothing in front of them. Local and national organizations have stepped up: calling for an end to strip-searching of children; demanding that the assistant principal, principal, and nurse who administered the searches be dismissed; and gathering support to ensure that the girls recover from the experience.
Although an important step in love is witnessing the pain and rage that traumatized people experience, we must also rectify injustices in the world. Black folks have many reasons to be angry. And we need local communities to love us by holding space for our traumatic experiences through real empathy and justice to rectify systemic wrongs.
Despite our differences, my partner and I are learning to support each other in our own home. Or perhaps it is because we celebrate those differences that we love each other. Similar opportunities to celebrate and embrace our differences exist across the United States.
I am happy to be in Naples where we have community events that offer opportunities to get to know each other: Vintage Vines Valentines and NordicFest are just two I hope to attend in February. I’m also curious how our community honors black culture and contributions, especially during Black History Month, and I hope to join those celebrations, as well.
So how are you celebrating Black History Month this February? Are you holding space for others and showing up for the community?
This is necessary work if we are going to practice Ujima in our vastly diverse, melting pot that is the United States. Although it is difficult work, I believe Naples is up for the challenge. I look forward to getting to know more locals who are committed to push beyond the comfortable and learn how to support each other in true love.
To learn more about black history, visit the Naples Library or our online OWWL system. Read Beloved, or watch the film, then discuss it with your neighbors, and in your church community. And support the four girls in Binghamton by signing and circulating the petition online on Facebook at @food4thespirit.
– Rebekah Williams blogs at foodforthespirit.org; find her on Facebook at @food4thespirit or email her at Rebekah (at) foodforthespirit.org. Rebekah is an occasional contributor to a monthly publication in Naples NY: The Neapolitan Record.