When Black folks need refuge we get prisons, hard work and death; when white folks need refuge they get rehab and meditation on a hill.
by Itoro Udofia
I’ve come out of a red summer. Seeing blood-stained t-shirts and another black body limp on pavement or slumped in a car seat, breathless.
I think of ancestors. No doubt they came out of many red summers. Did they ever clutch their hearts, asking, “What kind of world have I been born into?” A couple months ago, after seeing Philando Castile’s blood-soaked shirt, I plotted my escape. Having a crisis of the spirit, I packed up my unevenly employed, distressed self and manifested a plan to stay at a Buddhist monastery in the hills.
I felt horrible to admit that somewhere in the mix of meetings, protests, conversations, Facebook posts and programs to make a better world, I was unconvinced that it was getting any better. In the flurry of navigating life as a Black woman wading through my own trauma history, I was uncertain if I would make it in time to see a world with new possibility. A world where I could wake up without a litany of names — names of people, young, old, black, trans, female, male, once-alive people snatched from this plane into another.
I went to the monastery hoping for quiet. Even more insidiously, I wanted to forget. And for a time, I did forget. Happily so. I stuffed myself full of the vegan and vegetarian food options and appreciated the monastery’s sweet tooth — nights of banana bread, lemon bars or cookies waiting for us in the dining hall. Days when a resident would slip me a piece of dark chocolate in glee.
During the day I cut fruit and vegetables, becoming highly skilled at cutting watermelon and cantaloupe into perfectly shaped cubes. Evenings meant sitting meditation, where all I had to do was sit and count my breaths. In and out my breath went until the bell rang for us to say our vows. At some point, I finally learned what everyone was saying (after I stopped thinking they were absurd), and I began to chant the vows with them.
The one that always stuck with me most was, “I vow to save all sentient beings.” Ready to go to sleep, I mumbled my vows haphazardly, waiting for night to approach. When night came, I let the noise of crickets and cicadas put me to sleep, and then I’d begin the process again.
Enjoying the gift of simplicity and three square meals a day, I developed a love affair with the monastery. I loved it so much that I contemplated staying, anxiously clinging to the shred of peace settling into my spirit.
In slowing down I was able to rest, and in the restfulness, I became awake. I let myself be still enough to hear my own heart, and somewhere in the quietude, the blood-soaked t-shirts came back, the limp bodies came back and the redness of the summer settled into my vision. I saw red, noticing the redness of my very blood circulating my body, so present to the red that my very being turned red.
At the end of my meditation, I said my vows, landing on my favorite one:
I vow to save all sentient beings.
I became certain of one thing: I needed to open my eyes. That night, I looked around the meditation hall, noticing that most of the people were white. The distress I’d tried to escape came back and I found myself in a panic. I scoured the room looking for a refuge, a still point, and landed on my point of solace, seeing another Black woman sitting across from me, chanting the same vow.
Outside of meditation, we talked, laughing and conversing about the lack of color, the lack of Blackness at the monastery. Where are all the Black people? we’d ask. Is this place even for us? We understood a more painful reality about the conditions of many Black people in this country.
When Black folks need refuge we get prisons, hard work, and death; when white folks need refuge they get rehab and meditation on a hill.
We accepted this fact, knowing what we were being called to do. We knew there weren’t many of us with the opportunity to simply meditate on the hill. And the work we had to do, called us away from the monastery. So after the month, I bowed before the Buddha and bowed to the power inside of myself to leave, anchored with a warrior wisdom.
Sitting for hours let me see that the life I was saving was my own. I couldn’t escape the lives of Black people and the black experience in this country — or the world, for that matter. No use. Most of all, I couldn’t escape my own life. The very thing burning inside of me was something that wanted to find refuge with other Black people.
When I scoured for a face in the sea of whiteness that was the monastery, I found solace in the only other black face there. That face was the face I had been searching for. A face reflecting my own. If someone ever clutches their heart a hundred years from now, asking me: What did I do? I want them to know that I chose life. I chose to hear, I chose to find and hold tight to my people.
Autumn comes. Leaves are changing color, the wind is cooler and there’s a growing litany of names. I learn about the man snatched from us while he was reading a book, and I hold myself knowing I am in this for the long haul, no matter the frenzy of sirens, death, meetings, speeches, affirmations, protests, and despair. No matter what the seasons bring.
I am red; red with anger; red with resolve; red with stillness; red with love. No matter if the very life that’s taken one day, is my own.