“I’m pretty critical of the notion of safety in my work, and what I want is people to feel comfortable in the circumstance of risk.” – bell hooks
“Do me a favor and cut those onions for me!”
My mother or my grandmother or my aunt’s voice fills the kitchen and the demand finds my shoulder to rest on. Every year, this is the demand that I most dread. When cutting onions, my eyes go red and they sting, and my mother or grandmother or aunt, does not care because it is for the greater good of fantastic food. Some years, I attempt to bargain. I say, “What if I just cut the potatoes?” They’re not as flavorful as onions, sure, but I can peel and cut those things with ease, my eyes won’t sting and tears won’t fall down my cheeks. Every year, I get rejected. I cut, they sting and we cry as Patti LaBelle and Donny Hathaway coo in the background. Surrounded by family and friends, I ritualistically cry and as those goddamn onions sting. One aunt says, “It’ll be alright, baby. Just wet a paper towel and put it over your eyes.” My mother adds, “Breathe through your mouth, not your nose.” My uncle will walk behind me when the women leave and say, “Hey, man, I hate cutting onions too. You want me to lie and say you got to help me fix the car, and we can just drink a little beer and smoke some herb until the food is prepared, what’d you say?” I decline his offer because even through the sting, I know that I must finish this task.
“I’m very interested in what it means for us to cultivate together a community that allows for risk, the risk of knowing someone outside your own boundaries, the risk that is love – there is no love that does not involve risk.” – bell hooks
Annually, the black community suspends reality for the holidays. We attempt to forget the more complex realities we inhabit, so we might be able to get lost in the lights, food and laughs that the holiday season brings us. We dress up our anxieties with dressing and drown out our woes with the sounds of Aretha Franklin singing about a winter wonderland. This is not bad; often times, escaping, even for a holiday, can be extremely cathartic. Imagining freedom at a table full of food can motivate one to bring this piece of peace with them into the New Year. Practiced freedom and community has always had its place in the black imagination. When we think of slavery, we must remember that in reality, there was no family, just property. It was the black imagination that transcended this reality and made family where there was none and created love where only violence, hatred and exploitation existed. The idea that I find useful is marrying that black tradition with the reckoning of reality.
I think of my memories of holiday’s past and the lessons that were learned while preparing fantastic food. The preparation of meat taught me patience. The seasoning of vegetables taught me mindfulness. And the cutting of onions taught me how to experience pain and be vulnerable in public, and continue, regardless. I am afraid, however, it would be a huge mistake to suspend reality to feign comfort this year and years to come. I believe we should reject the idea of the safe space if for no other reason than the belief that it does not exist and by pretending it does—especially in political and social times like the ones we are in now—is extremely dangerous. Domination has black people by the neck, and this is not the time to sweep truths underneath rug as The Temptations or The Miracles harmonize.
The beautiful part about the holidays in the black community is that it gives an opportunity to create spaces filled with love, fellowship, and empowerment to address the scarier parts of our reality. It gives us space to ask the questions that haunt us in the workplace, in bed, or in traffic, but we don’t individually feel brave enough to grapple with because we are not sure how deep the fear actually is. The holidays for the black community can be a time to discuss Kanye West, Kid Cudi and Azealia Banks, and introduce conversations about black mental health. The holidays are a time to talk about capitalism and economic violence, and to plan ways to support one another into the New Year.
The holidays are also a time to discuss this nation’s political embrace of white supremacy, and how we attend to survive it and support one another. We know this place of fear and violence, but this is not the time to suspend reality to better digest fantastic food or listen to wonderful music. The resource that black fellowship and shared joy provides is love. The safe space may be a lie, but we have the capacity to birth a space filled with love that empowers us all to take risk and resist domination, and it all begins with radical honesty and communication. We know this place. We are all weary, and more than anything, we all want to escape reality; however escaping is momentary, but creating can last for forever. This holiday, I dream of the black community communicating honestly and creating the necessary by not ignoring the obvious.
“We know this place because we have vowed before never again to return, but here we are, back in the desert, dry mouth and thirsting for waters from Heaven. But come, come, children, rally around, and maybe together we can make a sound that will shake the trees or rattle the ground, make strong our knees, we’s freedom bound.” – Sunni Patterson, “We Know This Place”