The Cambridge Chronicles: Letter 4 – Embracing the Hoteppery
It’s been an intensely quiet term for me. A lot of reflection time. Journaling, praying, meditating, self-work. But also a lot of hard work behind the scenes. A lot of planning, plotting, testing ideas, a lot of research. Building a company, trying to get my research published, loosening some friendships while tightening others. I’m still reflecting on my early New York journey, and still reflecting deeply on some of those lessons. It’s slowly becoming clearer why those hard lessons were essential to my journey.
The road to Cambridge began the day I quit that first corporate job. The complete liberation I felt in that moment allowed me to explore and embrace who I wanted to be in this world without asking permission. There were many failures after that day, but every single one taught me an unforgettable lesson and brought me closer and closer to the God who separated me from my will and aligned me with Theirs. Granted, if I’d had proper guidance on fulfilling my dreams from that day, the journey would’ve been much shorter. But I can hardly wish for a different journey because the story is just too rich now.
When I told my Pastor I had quit my job, he was rather concerned. Shocked really. I think he was trying not to look too alarmed, but I can still remember his face. This was over 12 years ago. I told him I wanted to sell Nyabinghi’s collection online and he was concerned that these artifacts are not just art, but also spiritual objects for many. Idols. In retrospect, I can see that his face was saying that this was a dangerous world to enter. I didn’t pick that up at the time. Nor did I care. I was searching for my identity, and I was willing to risk all to find it.
The other thing that was happening when I was hating and then quitting my job is that I was in a tumultuous relationship with someone who was terrible to me. Let’s call him Birthday Twin. We actually met online (this was when hi5 and Black Planet were online dating), but I met him physically for the first time at Perrier and Poetry. We fell right into each other. We would share books, and both had a love for Chris Abani and Marcus Garvey. We would fantasize about traveling the Continent. We’d go to museums and live performances at Brooklyn spots and Central Park. I was attached to and in love with him well after we broke up in a big, loud fight at midnight in a Texas suburb. He had put his hands on me. It wasn’t much of a slap, but it was enough for me to start screaming and to let out all my frustrations with such a ridiculous relationship where one party would ignore the calls of the other party for days on end. On our birthday. We didn’t speak on our birthday because we were fighting. That kind of dumb shit.
He wasn’t supportive of the job quitting stuff, though he thought I was brave. He told me he’d been out of work in New York and it wasn’t fun, so to think twice before quitting. I either thought I knew better, or I didn’t care. My mental health (read freedom) was the most important thing to me at that time. So for the next several months, I worked on a few projects that meant something to me. I started this website that was intended to be what Oja Express is today: Ijesha Ijebu, my attempt at honoring my ancestors… It was a decent practice in graphic design and web development, but it didn’t go very far.
I think I also posted my T-shirt ideas on that site. I still have some of those images. T-shirt’s with quotes like “Who killed Abiola?” (I’m still waiting for the culprits to come clean) and “Yes I’m Haitian, no I didn’t come here on a boat…” “Yes I’m Ethiopian. I know I’m gorgeous. Please don’t touch my hair.”
The idea for this T-shirt company came to me while I was sitting in on a class at Columbia Law School, where I was supposed to be applying. Some white guy in front of me had a T-shirt on with so much text on the back. And I was like, “what if his shirt was actually teaching me something valuable? Something about Africa…?” People loved the idea, but I had zero idea how to properly market the products–or anything–and close sales. By the time I had an opportunity to showcase them in a fashion show, I had run out of time and out of money.
Everyone close to me when I first quit my job was extremely concerned. And didn’t know how to help me. My mother literally thought I had lost my mind. Like actually. When she came to visit and saw that I wasn’t eating out of trash cans, I guess she just committed to praying a bit harder for me.*
The only people who didn’t think I was crazy were the earth-loving, incense-burning, Hidden Colors-watching, dashiki-wearing Rasta/vegan/pan-Afrikan activists of BK. They were nice to me. They saw me. They encouraged me. They prayed for me, spoke life into me. Always. The “Hoteps”.
Now Hoteps get a really bad rep. Some have killed the credibility of an entire population. But these people who’ve been telling us for generations about veganism and recycling and immune boosting and the value of ganja and meditation and sleep…they’ve long been the lightbearers. And now Gwynneth Paltrow’s of the world get to make tofu cool again. Stop that.
So I was very borderline (novice) Hotep. I was already vegan and walking around Brooklyn in African fabric wrapped around my breasts, waist and head. I knew the best juice bars in the city. But now I dialed it up a bit.
I joined some activist organizations which opened my eyes to the grunt work being done to free political prisoners and end Stop and Frisk, the spiritual dimension of Black activism / orisha fandom, the prison industrial complex, LGBTQ activist culture, the power of radical music, Black radicalism in academia, radical Black art, and the list goes on.
I floated from Diaspora event to Diaspora event. From Africa Day in Harlem, to the West Indian Day Parade, to Black August, to the Nigerian Independence Day Parade, to Know Your Rights workshops, letter writing sessions for political prisoners, protests against police brutality…
It was in this middle space that I begun to clarify my calling. I knew it before I quit my job, but I didn’t know how to manifest it. I learned that there was an entire activist ecosystem. It had its own economy, its own tiers, elitism and classism and superstars and plebians and infighting and orgies and lifelong friendships and communal gardens and childcare and marriages.
I knew social justice work was the only work that mattered to me, but I needed to do it in a way that was less judgey and less brokey and less incestuous and more efficient. In retrospect, I was just as judgey and broke as anyone I met during this time. Most importantly, I knew I had to find my balance between radical philosophy and making a living. Then I found the artists. I’ll tell you about that next time.
Featured image source: @HotepJesus on Twitter