"In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. ...You got to love it." ---Toni Morrison, Beloved
Rob is a big man, a couple inches over six feet tall and solidly built, but when he fainted in the opening session of our BOLD training for Black social justice leaders in January 2012, his body slipped to the floor without a sound.
It was the first hour of this new program, the first day. Our veteran training team -- with collectively at least a century of organizing, training, healing and teaching among us -- was introducing our core methodology of somatics to these seasoned movement leaders. Even the youngest had already spent years tackling major issues: mass incarceration, human rights abuses, and injustice in schools, on the job and in housing and medical treatment. Now they were taking on their own leadership.
Somatics is a holistic and integrated approach to individual and collective transformation. It takes its name from its emphasis on the soma -- the living organism in its wholeness. At the core of the method is the physical body we've mostly been taught to ignore or treat as a machine.
There we were, at the historic Penn Center on St. Helena Island, SC, one of the first schools for formerly enslaved African-Americans, teaching centering. This simple practice of coming home to the self, to the body, and relaxing into your natural length, width and depth, while organizing yourself to act in alignment with your deepest values or purpose is the foundation of somatics. We knew that practiced sincerely, centering is profound, giving us the ability, "the muscles" so to speak, to keep bringing ourselves back to presence, to our bodies and to our commitments. We didn't, however, expect Rob's dramatic demonstration of the point.
In that initial centering practice, Rob told us, his body felt weird. He was letting himself fill out in length, or trying to, when his head got light, his mouth dry, and he collapsed. He said that it was as if his body didn't know what to do when he tried to relax into his full height, and he realized that this is because, without thinking about it, or doing it deliberately, he makes himself smaller almost all the time in order to appear less threatening.
Our bodies don't lie. If fact, there is no "us" separate from our bodies. There is an unimaginable brilliance in our bodies, three billion years of evolutionary wisdom. That wisdom helps us distinguish safety and danger, and restore ourselves to health and well-being through our innate resilience. All this happens far below consciousness, like our breath and heartbeat. But as we learn to maneuver through a complicated social reality, for most of us, the signals get jammed, and we find ourselves disconnected from the body's truths.
It is a rare Black body in the United States that doesn't carry some version of this requirement to appear unthreatening. At points, the demand has been loud and clear, enshrined in the laws of segregation. Today, the most obvious signs have been taken down and discarded, and micro-aggressions send the message, comments like "I don't see you as Black; you're not like the others." And there is racial profiling, the school-to-prison pipeline, the corrosive impact of shrinking opportunity, and as always, extrajudicial murder. Of course our bodies know.
The litany of deaths drones from every news outlet, and the names -- Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown -- register, burning, in our skin. Unremarked by news broadcasts, many of us ourselves survive encounters that might have left us dead. How could our liberation not depend on creating new social, legal and economic systems, and at the same time, decolonizing our bodies?
Liberation requires courage and hard work. We resist injustice, create alternative systems, build power, redesign institutions, build organization, and all the while, live our lives, as whole as we can make them. Coming home to our bodies makes that wholeness more possible, and the rigorous and exhilarating discipline of deepening somatic awareness aids the journey. More deeply connected to our own aliveness, we connect more accountably to others. We build movements that nurture leadership and collaboration, as does #Black Lives Matter, the contemporary blossoming of the Black Freedom Movement.
Rob found his center, and his height and dignity. In the closing circle of that first training, participants shared first drafts of their commitments -- statements of the future they each chose to be, to live and embody. Rob's commitment included his living, loving and leading as the giant he was, and as he stood there, relaxed, focused, and on purpose, he radiated the steady power of gentle self-acceptance.
"Yonder they do not love your flesh. ... You got to love it." Let's get on with this work of liberation, loving our flesh, our lives and each other. Let's get free.
This post is part of the "Black Future Month" series produced by The Huffington Post and Black Lives Matter for Black History Month. Each day in February, this series will look at one of 28 different cultural and political issues affecting Black lives, from education to criminal-justice reform. To follow the conversation on Twitter, view #BlackFutureMonth -- and to see all the posts as part of our Black History Month coverage, read here.