Michael drove me to Miami today to drop off my visa application documents to the Brazilian Consulate. If any of you know me in the slightest, you’ll know that I had no idea the NBA Championship just happened and was won by the Miami Heat. But, I found out today when we tried to park in downtown Miami, which was blocked off for the parade, the parade that routed in front of the Brazilian Consulate. As I mentioned in a much earlier blog, Michael doesn’t do well with traffic, and I hate a wet blanket on an adventure, so it hasn’t been a good day. But, the application is done, and I can pick it up Monday.
Since Michael and I weren’t speaking or particularly enjoying each other’s presence on the ride back, I had a long time to think. We finally made it out of Miami and then took the long way home up through Boca Raton and Ft Lauderdale to pick up I-75 through the Everglades, which is nicknamed Alligator Alley. [Author’s note: if you want to see alligators, use the Tamiami Trail instead.] I finally got to be the passenger contemplating the endless expanse of the sawgrass prairies and infinite Seussian landscapes of curved, bushy palms that sprung randomly in small islands of trees.
For the first time, I thought about Brazil, really thought about it. About the fact that I am going and not just pretending to go. I thought about why I’m going: to study African-Brazilian dance and rhythms, to observe the candomble religious services and honor the orixas, or gods and goddesses and saints. While I was waiting for the young woman to stamp my application, I picked up a promotional brochure on Bahia and read it as we rode home, the Everglades rolling by under the last bands of clouds from our recent tropical storm.
As I’m reading, I’m realizing how little I know about where I’m going and what I’m getting ready to do. For instance, I had no idea Bahia was mostly African, that its capitol city, Salvador, is the most African city outside of Africa. I knew Bahia was a hub of African culture in Brazil, that capoeira was born there, that samba emerged from its streets. But I had no idea how African. 80% of its population is of African descent–from slaves brought over between the 16th and 19th centuries. 1.3 million people were brought to Bahia alone during this time period–which is twice as many African slaves brought to the United States of America. [Note: breeding of slaves ultimately resulted in over 4 million African slaves in the USA, and 12 million Africans were taken from their home countries though they were dispersed mostly in South America.]
Out of slavery in Bahia was born capoeira, samba; out of the massive slave uprising grew the baiana, the traditional woman-in-white, revered mother, the symbol of a pure spirit and liberty. Out of slavery in the South grew gospel music, the banjo–and, later, in our own Diaspora of freed people, jazz, hip hop, breakdancing, and slang erupted from the African-American soul. Somehow, and I have never been able to understand it myself, the rhythm of Africa moves me unlike anything I have ever known. Within African dance and drums, I find God. It’s that simple, and yet I can not fathom why I, some middle class peckerwood cracker from eastern North Carolina, connect.
I’m not one of those people who can simply look at slavery as some distant historical event that black people need to quit whining about. Thematically, slavery has followed me throughout my life: from my white Southern upbringing to this moment, when I am making a pilgrimage to the source of God’s very heartbeat, which, for me, thumps out of Bahia, Brazil. I don’t talk much to people about my personal feelings about race relations or my observations about how profoundly affected the modern world is by the African Diaspora because it’s rare to come across someone who revers it; most people I know–regardless of skin color or nationality–want to argue about it still, and, I think, with good reason. It’s a giant wound that has never been allowed to heal, especially in the United States.
What I realized is this trip is wildly gathering the struggles of my life into one circumstance, and this culmination of drum, dance, and God and how these three things transcend the enslavements manufactured by the human mind to keep us all believing we are separate from each other…well, I sat in my seat with the brochure in my hands wondering, delightedly, just what in the hell have I gotten myself into?
And I don’t know, I just know that I have to go. I’m supposed to go because I’m supposed to write about it. That’s all I know right now.
To tell you I’m excited is an understatement. It feels like the end pieces of a puzzle I’ve been struggling to assemble since I started to understand that my life’s path was not going to be like anybody else’s life path. For so many years now, my life has been without real joy. I don’t mind sharing that with you; I think you can figure out I’ve been trying to break my own bonds of slavery in my own ways, and there’s really not that much to sing about.
I don’t know… It’s like my joy is waiting for me to show up in Brazil, and, until then, I will continue to do what I need to do here to prepare myself to receive it. It’s like this: despite the whole New Age, manifest greatness, everybody-deserves-to-live-in-perpetual-bliss craziness happening right now, I know for a fact that I can not, of my own steam, manufacture my own joy and happiness. I can’t. I’ve tried, and I’ve failed. But, what I can do is receive joy and happiness, I mean, really open up myself to experience the joy and happiness that hum along, invisible and many times silently, in the unseen. Drums pull that joy and happiness out of the unseen, and then my body has something wonderful to do. I don’t get to be happy and joyful all the time, so I’ve quit trying.
Somehow, slavery and African culture are interwoven into this strange puzzle, and I doubt I will understand how until long after I return. I’m supposed to say something about it, but I don’t know what yet. It never ceases to amaze me what we experience today as a result of slavery, as a result of the breaking of chains, as a result of the endless witnessing of humans forcing themselves and others into brutal bondage. Many of the results are wonderful, like shared music and culture and food, like the cross-pollination of people and instruments and languages and colors.
What an odd series of thoughts to have while I am bitter at Michael and riding through the Everglades. But there they are.
The director of the Bahia program wrote me week before last that we’re one person short and I might have to room by myself and split the cost. I know this trip is being organized by forces greater than I am, so I’m not upset. “I affirm perfection,” I wrote to her.
“Axe!!,” she wrote back.
I looked it up. It’s pronounced ah-SHAY, and refers to the life-force of the universe, of being in tune with the rhythms of all that is good and in good order. Yes, I thought.
night night, beloveds.