Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Travails of Flying While Black

I debated about writing this post. The topic has been covered many times by my travel blogging peeps, most eloquently by Fly Brother and Lola at Geotraveler's Niche .It's an issue that always comes with being a person of color in a society filled with stereotypes and narrow expectations. But two days ago, I was moved to speak out about this reality because I was stopped and searched by TSA along with my daughter. Were we smuggling explosives in our socks or trying to sneak bottles of  mercury? Hardly. We were apparently guilty of something much more sinister. We dared to walk through airport security with long hair.

Now I must explain that we are of African descent so our long hair is very curly and sectioned into pieces often called dreadlocks but we prefer to just call them locs. I'm well aware of the negative connotations associated with wearing your hair this way. Lots of ill-informed people think that wearing locs is a sign that you are involved with drugs. But this ignorant stereotype has nothing to do with the truth that millions of black people wear their hair in these naturally formed curls as a source of cultural pride. So I don't acknowledge any of the stupidity and have generally only experienced positive reactions to my hair.  In all my years of traveling in and out of airports all over the world, I have never been stopped and questioned about my hair until this year. I had an inkling that things were getting ugly when I heard about the iconic Dallas hair stylist Isis Brantley being stopped and searched by TSA because of her afro. Maybe the Atlanta TSA watched too many Pam Grier movies but they actually rooted through her hair for weapons. Of course, she felt humiliated and filed a discrimination complaint. Why was her natural hair a target and not any other kind of hair? You can hide things in any head of thick, long hair but a body scan will surely detect that.  Other accounts of  African American woman being searched by TSA because of their "poofy" hair started to pop up. Women with afros, afro puffs and just curly hair, were being targeted more and more.

 Months later, I was politely stopped in Charlotte and a TSA agent asked to pat my hair. As if I could be hiding something in it after going through a full body scan.  She patted my hair a few times and I left but I questioned the criteria used for checking someone's hair. There were lots of other women in line with long, thick hair who were not stopped.  There were even women with hats, which are supposed to be prohibited.  They weren't stopped but I was. According to TSA's website, pat downs are typically triggered by metal detectors and "the vast majority of passengers will not receive a pat down at the checkpoint." I did not set off any metal detectors and clearly, I am not a part of the majority. I had no doubt that racial stereotypes played into this situation but I refused to dwell on it.

Until they stopped my daughter.  The agent, who was an older black woman, looked apologetic as she patted down my child's head.  This did not stop the look of panic on my daughters face. Why did they search our hair? Why didn't they do that to anybody else? She asked. I didn't say that it was because we were black and we had  natural hair, which is deemed questionable by many in this society. I didn't say that if we wore weaves or a wig or straight, processed hair or anything other than how our hair grew naturally out of our scalps, that we would not have been stopped. I didn't have to. We were the only African Americans in line. We were the only ones pulled aside for a pat down. We live in Chicago.  She knows. Racism is part of the fabric of the city and there is no way for me to shield her from it.  But she wanted me to make some sense of the situation and I couldn't. Had they stopped the woman with cascades of flaxen hair skimming her waist, had they searched the woman with a complicated updo that could have harbored a small bomb, then I could have said to my daughter, "they are just checking everybody to make sure that we'll all be safe." But they weren't checking everybody and we're not safe, especially from the vicious grip of racism and discrimination.

So I filed a civil liberties complaint with TSA. Not because I think it will change the way that people of color are singled out and stereotyped in this society but because I believe that awareness and accountability is the only way we can move forward. In the wake of Trayvon Martin and the outcry over The Hunger Games movie characters being black, there is too much denial going on. This is a racist society founded upon violent and racist actions that ripped land from one people of color and forced another to work it for free.  The pain, anger and fear of these facts are still very present today. But that doesn't mean that it has to remain that way.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Mayan Magic

The Spring Equinox in the Mayan Peninsula is a magical time. I didn't realize just how magical until I snapped this photo. No it is not photoshopped. No it is not posed. Cheray O' Neal  is feeding a french fry to the seagulls and they swooped down like a scene from The Birds.

It started with two seagulls hovering around for scraps. They hopped around, waiting for crumbs, as I've observed them do many times.

And then, swarms of them appeared as Cheray fed them fries. I've seen hungry birds. I've seen flocks of  seagulls (real ones, not the 80s band) soaring through the sky but I've never seen them gliding a few inches above my head.  It felt like magic and just a tad scary. Cheray had to ditch the fries before we were surrounded by a  fierce feathered  posse. I chalk it up to the magic of the Mayan Spring solstice. Either that or there was something in those fries...

Friday, March 16, 2012

Next Stop: Yuctatan Peninusula

The uproar about the Mayan prophesy of the end of the world in 2012 was hilarious to me.  Western culture always searches for absolutes when life rarely operates that way. According to the Mayan long calendar, the old tumultuous cycle ended in December 2011 and 2012 unfolds a new, gentler cycle.  I will journey to the Yucatan Peninsula next week to witness the Mayan Spring Equinox at Chichen Itza,  This sacred Mayan site boasts 1,000 years of Maya and Toltec history as well as cultural and spiritual significance. The Spring and Autumn equinox were sacred times of healing for the Maya, when day and night equaled exactly the same length and when the "Descent of The Feathered Serpent"  down the Pyramid of Kukulcan pictured above, marked the season of rebirth and renewal.  I will hopefully witness the perfect alignment of the sun with the Kukulcan Pyramid, creating a play of light and shadow that conjures up the illusion of a massive reptile representing the feathered serpent god Kukulcan , slithering down the north side of the pyramid. This phenomena is just one of the demonstrations of the stunning astrological knowledge of the Maya. I'll also participate in other rituals, including swimming in a sacred cenote, which are ancient entrances to underground caves and river systems, the Maya considered them to be full of powerful spiritual energy.  So look for posts about my Mayan adventures after next week. Happy Spring!

Friday, March 9, 2012

Athena And The Athens of The South

Nashville may be famous for country music but this charming city is also known as the Athens of the South. All the universities, museums and cultural activities earned Nashville that nickname but imagine my surprise when I gazed up at the golden Athena pictured above. Looming 41 feet, 10 inches and weighing 12 tons, Athena Parthenos, as the statue is called,  is a jaw-dropping showstopper.  Tucked into an exact replica of the Athenian Parthenon, the gilded Athena was constructed in Nashville by noted sculptor Alan LeQuire over a period of time from 1982-1990. I had no idea that Nashville took their nickname so seriously but standing in the Parthenon, gazing up at Athena Parthenos is probably as close as you can get to Greece in the U.S.