On Walking, Sharing Space, and Our Mother‰’s Garden

Cierra Bland - Ecuador


January 6, 2015

Virginia Woolf wrote further, speaking of course not of our Phillis [Wheatly], that ‰ÛÏany woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century [insert ‰ÛÏeighteenth century,‰Û insert ‰ÛÏblack woman,‰Û insert ‰ÛÏborn or made a slave‰Û] would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village…a highly gifted girl who had tried to use her gift for poetry would have been so thwarted and hindered by contrary instincts [add ‰ÛÏchains, guns, the lash, the ownership of one‰Ûªs body by someone else, submission to an alien religion‰Û]…Black women are called in folklore that so aptly identifies one‰Ûªs status in society ‰ÛÏthe mule of the world,‰Û because we have been handed the burdens that everyone else- everyone else- refused to carry. We have also been called ‰ÛÏMatriarchs,‰Û ‰ÛÏSuperwomen,‰Û and ‰ÛÏMean and Evil Bitches‰Û… In short, even our plainer gifts, our labors of fidelity and love, have been knocked down our throats. To be an artist and a black woman, even today, lowers our status in many respects, rather than raises it: and yet, artists we will be. -Alice Walker, “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: Womanist Prose” *** My best friend will walk anywhere. She will complain about it, but she will do it. This characteristic led to one of the most ridiculous experiences of my life: walking over two miles in the middle of the night to her house as the city buses continuously rode past us. It was late October, junior year, and we were coming back from a Chinese restaurant with friends. We had someone drive us to the main road in our city, which the majority of buses use, and we waited inside of Pizza Hut for about 20 minutes for a bus. When we got tired of waiting, we just got on the next bus that rode by and let it take us about four blocks before we got off. Then, in a moment of sheer naivetÌ©, we thought, ‰ÛÏWe can just walk from here.‰Û So we did. We walked over 10 city blocks, through a half-empty parking lot, behind an abandoned train station, past a strip club, down a street with many more clubs, through a grocery store parking lot, up some stairs, then down five residential blocks, until we finally arrived at her house in a cold sweat. During my time in Quito I constantly found myself thinking about her and the many pointless adventures we shared.åÊ We have so many things in common, yet we are polar opposites and I realized how happy I am that I am doing this alone because I found my stride in Quito. I spent a lot of time walking alone and I realized how much I love walking on flat land. I walked to fill time and empty spaces on days when I needed to feel something beneath my feet. At home I always felt uncomfortable walking without having any specific destination. I have never been a wanderer ‰ÛÒ in a physical sense. That part of me died when I was about seven years old; I lost my mother in a Wal-Mart and she reprimanded me in an aisle for walking off. I will allow my mind to wander aimlessly, but my body is always where it needs to be – or on it‰Ûªs way there. I have found myself wanting to look like I always have somewhere to be, like I always have a purpose, even when I had nowhere to be and I just needed some fresh air. Walk straight. Don‰Ûªt look down. Keep your head up. Breathe casually. Don‰Ûªt look around too much, look like you’ve seen these signs, stores, and streets hundreds of times. Don‰Ûªt hesitate at this corner. Don‰Ûªt swing your arms. This was how I would keep my cool. This was how I would let the world know that I was capable. This was how I would let the world know that I was not afraid of it, or any of the little crappy things it could hit me with. This was how I communicated strength and confidence even as I walked down a city street. All of that strength, all of that confidence, dissolved when I walked into the terminal at SFO. I discovered culture shock that very first day in California. It hit me and it hurt. I thought that I would be surrounded by like-minded people, but I was not. So many different types of people with different worldviews, experiences, and stories to tell were all gathered for the same program, and we were all in search of very different things. This all made me feel a little unsure. Sharing a living space is a very intimate thing. You will not necessarily become best friends with your bunkmate, but you learn little things about people, and the little things that matter. On our last night at Stanford, one of my roommates and I had a heart-to-heart conversation. I had a good day and she was so sweet that I felt like I could open up to her. I told her why – even after eight days of workshops, guest speakers, seminars, and leadership-building – I still felt slightly unsure of why I was doing this. It all comes down to why I feel the need to look confident and strong when I am walking alone, because I am alone. This is how I was taught to act when I am alone out in the world, no matter what I feel inside. I learned during Pre-Departure Training that I was not alone, but I did not feel secure at the end. As we sat on the carpet of the only dorm room either of us would be staying in for a very long time and packed our bags to head in two different directions I told my roommate about the importance of representation and why I felt so detached during Pre-Departure Training. I told her that this is scary and strange because people who look like me and come from where I come from do not do things like this. Of course black people travel and of course they have done things like this, but it is not documented. We don‰Ûªt write books about how we went to a developing country and ‰ÛÏfound ourselves.‰Û There are no movies about black people going abroad and finding their love and purpose in life. I told her that there is nothing to re-assure me that I am doing the right thing; there is nothing to re-assure me that everything will work out; there is nothing for me to stand on other than the hope that I can help be that representation; and there is no reason for me to be here if not to return home and hopefully inspire other people who look like me and come from where I come from to do this as well. That we can do this. I am happily carrying that weight. I went on a bit of a lecture about this and I referenced Alice Walker‰Ûªs essay, In Search of Our Mother‰Ûªs Gardens. I told her that the main point of the article is refuting the idea that people who look like me simply do not like or do not want to do certain things. She is specifically talking about artistry and how hard it is to be both a black woman and an artist, but we do it anyway. Our mothers were not allowed to, and they buried it deep within themselves for generations; although it is difficult being those three things (black, woman, artist) individually, let alone a combination of all three, we keep on keepin‰Ûª on, for we must, not only for our own sake, but for our mother‰Ûªs and our daughter‰Ûªs sakes as well. This is why I am here. This why I am trying to create, not find, a path. It will be rough and unpaved and filled with broken sticks that will trip me if I am not careful, but it will be there. I am blessed to be able to do what I want and to have the opportunity find my own way and I plan to take advantage of it. My sentiments are best summed up by the last four lines of Rita Dove’s Lamentations. To refuse to be born is one thing- but once you are here, you’d do well to stop crying and suck the good milk in.åÊ

Cierra Bland