Ode to Nichelle
A Revolutionary Summer launched on Sunday, June 24. We headed south to Virginia with 18 beautiful Black girls in tow. "We" included our coordinators—Andrea Better, Shamoyia Gardiner and Nicole Karikari; our photographer Jamal Evans; our documentarian Jonna Mckone; our play director (a beautiful Black girl herself) Ui-seng Francois; sleep-deprived me, and Nichelle Calhoun. Our destination? The Afro-American Historical Association (AAHA) of Fauquier County.
The whole trip was love, peace + hair grease. I won't go deep into the details of it, not because I don't want to spoil the intimacy of the journey (I do wanna protect it some), but because this is an ode to the curator of the experience, Nichelle.
I met Nichelle Calhoun on social media. Some context: I'm an old-school Scorpio. I'm wary of online relationships and friendships, too. Also, I'm an awkward friend-maker. One time, when I was a freshman in college and getting some lunch from the canteen, a girl was staring at me. I asked my friend Ksha, "What she keep looking at me for???" Ksha said, "I think she thinks you're dope." Later the girl and I became buddies. This is what I mean by awkward. I often don't catch on to developing friendships, until we're planning trips to Fauquier County together. Anyway, I met Nichelle online, talking the same smack I talk. She was and is on the radical love of Black women train and sitting in the front row seat, just like me. She's a researcher and a writer. She gathered together stories from Black women in the diaspora and published them in a book called Songs of Yemaya: Stories of Black Womanhood. She asked me to submit and around the time of the book's publication indicated an interest in supporting A Revolutionary Summer in some way. This is how the trip to AAHA was born.
Fast-forward through the planning stages (the trip would serve as ARS's team-building retreat and first workshop), through the trip down (which was easy, breezy—the trip back...not so much, but that's another story, for another time) to our arrival at the AAHA's door. Nichelle begins to guide our experience with her raspy voice. She is cupcake short. She is power in strappy heels. She asks that we stretch and breathe and pray to begin. Once we are grounded, she points out the slave cage standing tall on the museum's property; reminds us that freedom is still our destination and responsibility. After we take the cage and lesson in, she tells us where to go and how to get there. Her precise directions reflect how well she's planned this visit, and I am comforted by her control. It seems to me that when I relinquish control, things go bad (no need to point out the spiritual lesson nestled in there—I'm already working on it). While I'm handing out supplies to the girls (thank you, champions Shelley Ettinger, Shana Scott and Tayari Jones for the binders, yoga mats and novels!) she is two floors below us, making sure that when the girls walk into the space they will see a table set, for them, with love.
Cue the tears, Baby Jesus! But I'm able to contain myself for the time being. Daughters find a seat to stand behind.
Nichelle introduces the museum's creator and curator, Ms. Karen Hughes White.
She gives us a brief history. Describes the purpose of and goals for the day. Then she asks that daughters (and mamas too) introduce themselves with the guidance of the following sentence prompts:
"I am _______________, and I am a descendant of generations of _______________ [family last names]. My people came here enslaved, but I will leave here _______________ [dream job/career you are pursuing]. Sister, I take care of you."
Each of us completes these sentences. Each of us blesses the girl or woman beside us. Each of us is welcomed to take A Seat at the Table, and to begin the work of tracing our matrilineage as far back as is possible.
Things just get better from here. The girls are introduced to yoga for the first time this summer by Ms. Nicole and Ms. Arnie, and we eventually head over to Blackwelltown to speak with the elders of Ebenezer Baptist Church. They not only feed us good (real good) soul food, but chat it up with the girls for about an hour about living through segregation, colorism, Black traditions, and a host of other significant things. The conversation (a real live history lesson) was thrilling.
The conditions of the experience were so carefully crafted, it felt surreal at times. I cried again and again. When the girls took their seats at the table; when I examined the free negro registry; when we all named our roots and said the dreams for our lives aloud; when the girls rolled and stretched in yoga class (okay, I laughed a little then—they are novices and you can tell!); when they stood and asked such well-crafted questions of the elders. And especially, especially when Nichelle spoke to them. For an entire day, they were guided by this sugar sweet voice that was imbued with, yes love, but that's not what I kept catching the Holy Ghost for—they were guided by this loving voice that floated out of a woman who respects children, Black girl children, as the baby bit of God they are.
Thank you, Nichelle for planning and executing this journey so thoughtfully. For sprinkling love and kindness and hope and respect into all of its elements. I do not think the girls will forget it. I certainly won't. xo