I worked for a small flower production farm during the summers while home from college. Part of the work was going to the gravel banks of the Vedder river to cut, strip and bundle yarrow, a medicinal flower that we would hang by the hundreds and hundreds to dry and sell at craft shows. The resin stained my fingers and the stems cut my hands. I got very, very tanned. I spent most of the days by myself in the dust and heat. I was a good employee– fast and reliable.
The farm was about a mile from my parents’ house, in the river valley where my dad was born. In the late 19th century, colonizers had drained the valley– the ancestral and unceded territory of the Stó:lō people. To a make that happen in a floodplain they rerouted tributaries and built dykes to protect the newly created farmland. This would eventually prepare a way for people like my great grandparents to come from Russia and for my grandparents to own a dairy farm in the shadow of the mountains. I imagine that the yarrow along with the blackberries and the reeds, were the first things to take hold on these new river banks. They named my town after this weedy flower. My small hometown is much less small now, and the streets are jammed with city-to-country traffic. It is still very Mennonite and still breathtakingly beautiful and still a place where, along the river, my children and I are at our very happiest.
When we bought our house from the Sisters and cleared the front bank, I scattered yarrow seeds. I knew it would take hold on our sunny, dry bank and when it did I was relieved that I could count on something to grow. It was tough and pretty and fed the bees and anchored me to home. It’s thick roots spread and matted and when it grew in a place I didn’t want it, I would just pull it out. This year I started to pull it up in earnest. It was taking over and yellowing at the edges. It had been a placeholder and I was eager to put some new things in. I began to dig out the mats and was surprised and how deeply they had taken hold and how many places I was finding them in the yard. Every day a little bit pokes up where I am convinced that I had already wrestled it out. A few weeks ago it was raining and I was trying to untangle the roots from a lupine I wanted to save. A neighbor walked by and commented with amusement and admonishment at how maybe I shouldn’t have planted it after all.
“Did you know that a man was killed in Minnesota a few days ago?”
“Yes…a cop killed him right? For what? Nothing, right? They gonna march or something?”
My 12 year old is half bemused. We live across from a park that is the site of vigils and marches and protests. It is complicated. Sometimes the events are organized by people who have strong historical ties to the neighborhood. In the last few years, they are often led by white people who feel comfortable bringing their families in our now gentrified neighborhood. The appearance of being in proximity to Blackness while protesting is fascinating. I am curious as to how this will continue to take shape. The kids are used to waving at people they know or watching the Black Bloc help protect folks from oncoming traffic. I ask him if he knows that folks are literally burning things down in other cities. He says he saw it on youtube live. He, more than I ever could at that age, acknowledges that sometimes you just have to burn things down. I ask him if he wants to go across the street tonight.
I am often an embarrassment to him.
I am often an embarrassment to myself.
The other night I pleaded with him to stop running his mouth. Your mouth is going to run you right into trouble. Your mouth is going to bring you home broken. Please do not come home broken.
I had no business scaring him anymore than he already is.
A few days after the murder of Ahmaud Arbery he said quietly, “I am sometimes scared to run by myself”. Every day I overhear his basketball coaches on their zoom workout go through and ask the kids who they are running with. “A___ you good? You running with your brother or your dad?”
His mouth should be able to do whatever it does, just as the mouths of white boys and men have done and continue to do for generations without impunity. I apologize to him the next day. This is not what I want for him.
This metaphor is almost too easy. I am embarrassed again. I am here with this mat of roots that have made me who I am– tough and weedy bits that showed me what hard work and humbleness and community looked like. They are roots that have held me together as I have weathered despair or depression or disappointment. It is a delicate business to pull them up and out. I do not want to lose them altogether. There is no shame. They have served me. And I have to believe there is so much better waiting to take hold.
Tiffany M. Jewel is an anti-racist educator and consultant and has written a stunner of a book for those of us who are seeking a shared language for anti-racism work. This Book is Anti-Racist. It is for everyone including young people, and I have found it enormously helpful in navigating entry points for doing this work.
A new short piece from Hanif Abdurraqib
“….though at this point I believe many people should be beyond a need for visual contrasts. I also don’t feel particularly interested in shepherding people to some kind of awakening. Many people aren’t who they were three or four months ago, and the illusion of the country’s greatness has found a new way to wear thin. A country that was, and has been held up by workers, by insular communities stretching themselves to the limits to give people what they need. Those are the people once again marching along the streets right now.”