October 20th 2018
“Y’all wanna go to Ferguson?” says Ngosa’s longtime friend, Dre. He has a deep voice and a lovely drawl that my ear takes a moment to adjust to.
“My cousin wants to go” explains Ngosa.
My dude genuinely doesn’t understand. “So your cousin…” Dre clarifies, “came to visit all the way from Canada, and she wants to go to Ferguson? There ain’t nothing to see there!”
I get on the phone and introduce myself to Dre. He is not at all shy about expressing his utter disbelief. “You’re better off sitting at the airport watching the planes take off” he says. “It’ll be way more interesting than going to Ferguson.”
Then he asks, “ What, you wanna go to the spot where Mike Brown died at?”
I say, “That’s exactly where I wanna go.”
Dre is incredibly confused. But he’s loyal. When we arrive in St. Louis County, and meet up with him, his partner, Jalisha and Ngosa’s friend, Irv, it’s Dre who offers to drive us to the memorial. He says we’ll check out where the action was. Before long, we exit off of the highway and find ourselves driving down quiet streets. A cream sign reads, “Ferguson”.
Upon first impression, Ferguson is...cute. It has a population of only 21,000 people. Two thirds of this population is Black. Irv told us several times. “It’s not that bad…it’s just that one thing that happened but other than that it’s pretty boring”. He might be right. It seems like a quiet city. And it’s very green. I take in lush lawns, and mature trees. I see houses that look older, but well loved. I stare at a school zone sign, and maybe for the first time contemplate the fact that children live in Ferguson. Of course children live here, I think. It’s a city….but then I think of the images I’ve seen of Ferguson: the protests, the military tanks, the burning buildings, and I’m horrified. How did parents and teachers explain that? Are the children as divided about whether or not Michael deserved to die as their parents are? Do all the children of this school even know of Michael Brown? Is that a stupid question? I learn that Missouri is a constitutional carry state, which means that you don’t require a permit to carry a firearm, so a lot of people here have guns. On them. Like all the time. I’m shook, but Ngosa explains that this is normal. I think of children and guns together, and all the things that could mean.
I shake my head in hopes that these thoughts might tumble out of my ears and leave me in peace. I stare out the window. I can’t believe I’m here and I can’t believe how ordinary the city appears.
Jalisha used to live in Ferguson. She has an abundance of information about Michael Brown’s murder, both the circumstances leading up to it, and the chaos that followed. The demonstrations I experienced through news reports and social media while I sat in my home in Calgary? She was actually there.
We drive to the police station and park across the street. I step outside the car to take this photo. Ngosa asks if I’d like to get closer, but I feel the grossest energy just looking at this building. It feels like my skin is hot and my chest is crawling.
When I saw this exact police station on TV, there were tons of people standing in front of it. Demonstrations. Tension. Google “Ferguson Police Station Protest” and you will a very different image of this exact building. Now, the streets are strangely empty. It’s a Saturday afternoon at exactly 4:30. Apart from the occasional car driving past, it seems deserted. I don’t need to get closer.
We drive through the city. Jalisha shows me the Ferguson Market convenience store that the police claimed Michael had robbed before he was shot by the Officer Darren Wilson (even though, police later said Wilson stopped Michael and his friend Dorian Wilson because they were jaywalking). She tells me about attending peaceful protests, and how protests escalated. She explains to me which streets she saw the tanks on. I hear about how police officers wouldn’t let people walk on the street, saying that they had to walk on the sidewalk. Then we drive on the street where the military tanks were!!! She, Dre and Irv all point out buildings that were destroyed and burned down during the protests. There’s no sign of that now, as things have been rebuilt. The infamous QuikTrip that was looted and burned is now a Salvation Army, apparently in honour of Michael Brown. If it’s in honour of him why isn’t his name on it? Anyway.
We are soon at the memorial for Mike on Canfield Drive. “Memorial?” “Crime scene?” What’s the right word? This is the street where he was shot six times, including twice in the head. Here is where he lay bleeding and lifeless for four hours - on display for his mother, grandmother, and neighbors, and friends, and the children of the neighborhood to see. The more I think through the details that followed his death, the more inclined I am to use the word “lynching”.
I thought that when I came to where Michael died, I would feel a similar energy to that of the police station, but I’m surprised at a sense of peace. This moment is quiet. I don’t see a single person on the street. I look at the empty, green space behind me. Michael was shot in the middle of the street. After his body was moved, residents of the neighborhood lay roses, candles, teddy bears on top of the blood stained asphalt. That memorial was run over by a car. When another was created on the sidewalk, it was burned to ashes in the early morning.
But people just made another one. I guess there is actually a lot of love on this piece of earth, because even though it is the place where he took his last breaths, it is also the place where his community refused to let him and his story be erased. I must be connecting with that energy - that of the candles and the flowers and the teddy bears as symbols that this young man was cared for, and that he matters. It’s the energy of the people who planted a tree in his memorial, and then replanted another one after the first tree was cut down. It’s the energy of those who still visit and decorate the plaque, while the internet has an abundance of photoshopped pictures of the plaque to have wording that I won’t repeat. It’s the spirit of a community that has the audacity to fight for and love a lost son in a country that is incredibly hostile to those of African descent. It is resilience. And at the root of this resilience? Love. Okay.
I say a short prayer for Mike. I thank him for letting me come to this place.
After we leave the memorial, Jalisha points out Michael’s mom’s workplace at the time. She tells us that when his mom heard that he had been killed, she immediately started running towards the Canfield Green apartments where her son was killed. It’s not close. Apparently a friend picked her up part way and gave her a ride.
I learned a lot that day, and throughout it all, I was composed. But reliving the image of a mom running down a main road to get to her baby...? It fucks with me. We end the day at a restaurant. While Ngosa, Irv and Dre make fun of each other, Jalisha and I connect one on one. I thank her for her time and her generosity in showing me around Ferguson and giving me the tea through her perspective. I came here to connect with perspectives like hers, so I am so grateful that she was willing to share with me. We laugh at the guys because of how much they drag each other. She and I smile at these three friends who met in their first year of college. Each of them studied something they are still passionate about. They all graduated and have jobs in their respective fields. “They are Black excellence” Jalisha tells me.
I completely agree.
And by the way, Black excellence for me is not about formal education, although it is excellent that they all prioritized education and succeeded. Black excellence is about living a life with purpose and making things happen for yourself. It’s about finding your own independence and joy. It’s about joy.
Trying to encapsulate what I learned in Ferguson in a single blog post is hard. I learned about a city with unbelievable racial tension, but what I connected with most in the moment was the laughter, love and joy. I don’t say that to take away from the seriousness of Michael’s murder, or to pretend that this not a space with incredible racial tension. Rather, as I reflect and look at the draft of my play, the lesson becomes clear: Yes, I am writing about a Black American experience, and a lot of that collective experience involves immeasurable pain and injustice, insult and deadly injury. But in the spaces where there the pain is so present that it is palpable, I am amazed that there is still an ability to find moments of genuine lightness, to show and share love, and to laugh. This makes me feel that there is hope.
The plaque at Michael Brown’s memorial reads: “I would like the memory of Michael Brown to be a happy one. He left an afterglow of smiles when life was done. He leaves an echo whispering softly down the ways, of happy and loving times and bright and sunny days. He’d like the tears of those who grieve, to dry before the sun of happy memories that he left behind when life was done.”
So, here’s to Michael Brown, to afterglows of smiles, to the ability to create happy memories despite... and to my single day in Ferguson, Missouri.
Oct 17th, 2018
Um. So. Tell me how the fuck. Did I. Just endure. Four pat-downs in the space of 24 hours??? As I flew out of Calgary, I was reminded of how much I hate flying to and through the United States. Here’s the tea:
It Oct 17th, and I’m buzzing to go on my adventure. I’m flying Delta. I check in, and it’s all good. I go through security and I’m told that I’ve been selected for a random security screening.
Okay, whatever. My Chuck Taylor’s come off. I put my arms up and get patted down. A person in uniform asks, “Are these your bags?” and I confirm. A stranger unpacks both of my carry-ons. They touch my things with a little cloth thingy on a stick (don’t know what else to call it) and then put the thingy in a machine that tells them there is no alarm. I’ve been randomly selected before. When they do this part, I honestly don’t know what they’re looking for. Anthrax? Is that still a thing? As curious as I am, I feel I can’t ask. Anyways.
I repack my bag, and I’m so jazzed to get on my flight...until I encounter the monster that is US Customs.
I speak to a Black customs officer who asks me what I’ll be doing in the United States. I tell him I want to connect with American Black History and he smiles. He tells me he is from Texas. He’s friendly. But the smile on his face turns into a wrinkle on his nose as he says “I don’t know why it’s doing that.” He gazes at his screen.
Enter the part of the story where my life goes to shambles:
Within seconds, a smiling white man (so fucking suspect...) approaches. Brotha gives him my passport and I am escorted into a back room? Office? Place. I’m told to sit. I do, besides an elderly man of South Asian descent. The sign in front of me says that the use of cell phones is prohibited. NBC News (I think) plays on a TV screen. I choose to stay cool, despite the fact that I really don’t know what’s going on, and this room has no windows.
The smiling white man reappears and mispronounces my name. I go to his counter, lol and this part I almost don’t even know how to describe because I’m still processing. Let’s just call it “questions”. Smiling white guy calls a friend over who I will refer to as non smiling white guy. These are some (but not all) of the questions they asked me:
Now I’m worried. These two men who don’t care about me search my belongings. For what? I don’t know. I’ve got to hand it to them for being efficient. Because this is only a 10 day trip, I only brought carry-ons. They each took a bag. Smiling white guy takes my little suitcase, so my clothes, toiletries, bras and underwear. Non smiling white guy goes through my backpack, so my books, notes, day planner.
There is a very special journal I have kept since 2016 called “Manifestations”. It has all of my deepest fears and hopes and dreams. It is where I write about everything I want. It is where I ask for the guidance of my ancestors. It is where I plead with God. This book has a list of 28 goals, dreams, and affirmations that I invite into fruition on a daily basis. It is so sacred to me that no one has ever seen it. He reads it.
I feel naked. He asks me how many of my dreams I have accomplished. I laugh nervously, but I tell him it’s embarrassing. Part of me wants to cry, but I feel like I will make matters worse for myself so I just play it cool.
As I write this, I am remembering several years ago when my family and I went to the States for the day, and we dealt with a very mean customs officer. I remember that we had to do our fingerprints he dug his finger nail into each of my fingers as he directed my prints onto the scanner. It hurt. I remember being scared, and that he spoke to my father with great aggression and disrespect. My dad, who is naturally hot headed, stayed cool. Calm. He even smiled. We got through but I remember feeling gross about it.
Back to the present: They tell me to unlock my phone and put it on airplane mode. They take my phone. They look at an email I have open. Then they give me this piece of paper.
They tell me to sit down at the other side of the room and they go through my phone together, whispering to each other, pointing at my screen. This goes on for maybe 20 minutes? I can’t say exactly because I don’t wear a watch and I couldn’t check my phone. They disappear with my phone. One of them comes out of a different door and asks me some more questions. He takes my passport, and asks me again how long I’ve lived at my current address for the second time. He asks me how much my rent is, and when I tell him he asks if this includes utilities. I say, “yes” and he says, “that’s a good deal!”
What the fuck is happening? At one point, non smiling white guy crossed the room with what looks like his lunch. There are no clocks on the wall, by the way, so I have no idea how long I have been here. I’m starting to ask myself what I have done wrong. You know what is on the wall? A plaque with the American flag that says something along the lines of “With dignity and integrity, we will protect our people, homeland and values at all costs”. Above that is a photo of smiling Donald Trump.
Kill. Me. Now.
Eventually I’m given all my stuff back and released without explanation. They might have told me to have a good flight? Smiling white guy thanks me for my cooperation. I finally look at the time. It’s 3:07 PM. My flight was at 3:05.
I get rebooked on another flight, but the timing sucks. I now have to wait for 14,862.5 hours (well that’s what it feels like) for another flight. I’ll now be reaching Kansas City tomorrow at 2 PM instead of tonight at 10 PM. Before I leave Calgary (for real this time) I am patted down again and two more strangers search my shit. They seem like nice ladies but I’m sooooo over this I’m about to cryyyyyyyyyyy in publiccccc this day is fuckingggggg endless my dude.
I finally leave. It’ll take me 3 flights now instead of 2. I have a trash 10 hour layover in Salt Lake City. Delta refuses to pay for a hotel room for me or give me any food vouchers because they say it’s not their fault that customs took long and I missed the plane. I get a hotel room on my own dime so that I can at least nap and shower.
The next day when I get to the airport in Salt Lake, my boarding pass beeps at security. They close down the lane I’m in and here we go. My bags are searched for the millionth time. I am patted down. The lady is rough when she inspects my groin for bombs (or whatever they were looking for). Before she sweeps the palms of her hands down my inner and outer thigh, she hits my private parts with a bit of force. I jump. I breathe. They touch my belongings and hands with a gray thingy and then put it in a machine which tells them there is an alarm. For what I don’t know. I get escorted to a room. I’m patted down by a gentler lady. A man comes though after a minute or so and says I’m free to go. They ask if I want help repacking my bags. I’m so tired of strangers touching my things, so I say no. The lady who patted my down roughly thanks me for my cooperation.
Why am I being thanked for cooperting in something I didn’t choose? I feel like I don’t own myself here. Now my bags, not my body. I’m exhausted.
I FINALLY make it to Kansas City and I am greeted by my radiant cousin, Ngosa. He is Zambian-American, and he lives here. We call each other “Twinny” even though I don’t remember why. I haven’t seen him in 8 years so I am thrilled to be able to hug him, but my nerves are wracked. I feel anxious. I don’t feel welcome in America… I ask myself, Is any Black person? Hm.
We spend the rest of the day catching up and it’s great, but truly it takes me about 36 hours, including a 12 hour sleep, a root chakra meditation, a yoga video on YouTube, 3 plastic bottles of Nestle water(sigh), a plate of rice and a prayer to my grandmother to come down from the weird energy.
When I finally arrive (energetically), I have a blast in Kansas City. Ngosa and I talk childhood memories, we crack jokes in Lozi, we find great appreciation for Stella Artois and red wine, we laugh until it hurts. When I tell him (for the first time, because that’s how I decided to roll) that I want to go to Ferguson, he laughs. When he realizes I’m serious, he shakes his head and smiles.
After a moment, he says “I gotchu, Twinny. You don’t have to explain it to me. Let’s go to Ferguson.”
Oct 17, 2018
Hey Squad. My name is Makambe K Simamba, and I am the playwright and performer of Our Fathers, Sons, Lovers and Little Brothers, which premieres at b current on April 11th, 2019. This piece invites an audience to grapple with the last moments of an infamous slain American teenager. It asks us to think about whose lives matter, and to experience what happens when one of the males in our community, perhaps a father, a son, a lover, or a little brother is taken.
Black lives matter.
And my intention with Our Fathers… is not to prove, but to honour this truth. I’ve spent the last few weeks penning my final draft, but something was missing. I suddenly felt a strong impulse to connect with the people who birthed this movement and the land on which they exist. This impulse kept me up at night. Before I know it (like literally days before), flights and accommodations are booked, and I’m standing in front of a mirror at the Calgary International Airport because I guess I’m the Queen of YOLO like that. That’s right, I’m leaving Canada for ten days and heading to the U.S. of A! I’m not exactly sure what I will find or how to articulate what I’m looking for, but I know for sure that I have to do this.
Here are 7 things I want you to know about me:
Over the next ten days, I’ll be doing hell of a lot of writing. Other than that, here are 7 things I promise
to do on my travels:
I will be documenting my self funded journey over the coming days, so please follow this blog to keep up with my adventures, musings, and discoveries :)
Bye bye, Calgary! First stop: Ferguson, Missouri.