Last week at the Juneteenth Freedom Academy session on Palestine we started to write letters inspired by June Jordan's "Letter to My Friend" (available in this packet: Juneteenth Palestine Essays). Here is my letter. Looking forward to seeing you all at any of these upcoming Juneteenth Palestine events at the Inspiration Station. Feel free to post your own letters in the comments or email them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wednesday, November 3rd: STORYTIME FOR PALESTINE! Bring the whole family for an evening with Ellen O’Grady’s picture book “Outside the Ark“
Thursday, Nov. 4th: Session 2: Journeys Towards Solidarity (featuring Jodeen Olguin-Taylor and Bryan Proffit on their trip to Gaza)
Friday, Nov. 5th: Movie night: SLINGSHOT HIP HOP
Thursday Nov. 11th: Session 3: Because We Still Are Here (with possible telecast from Mai’a Williams in Cairo)
You were my best friend at Sundance preschool. I remember going to your house. I remember your going away party where most of the friends were from temple and my family was very visibly Black and my parents didn’t stay too long, but I insisted on staying with you, and the kids from temple and the parents who had a world that like all adult worlds was incomprehensible to me.
You taught me some words which I’m sure I forgot and then relearned from other jewish friends at other private liberal schools. But you were first. And you left to move “back” to Israel. I would not have known to call you a settler. But I could tell that you were on an adventure. You sent a letter once, with pictures in it, I think. I sent a letter too, all the way to a place I couldn’t imagine, and would never have known was only the age of my grandparents. It wouldn’t have registered. I thought places, like grandparents, were forever.
Nobody said that there was water poisoning and olive tree removal and armed forcing of people out of their homes that was happening to make room for families like yours to go “back.” Nobody in no private liberal school even to this day ever mentioned that there was a war the year after we were born where 60,000 people, some of them preschoolers like we were when we knew each other, were forced to leave where they lived so that families like yours could live there and feel safe and at home. I felt safe and at home when I was in preschool. I felt safe at your home in New Jersey.
I got the feeling that you were leaving because you would feel much more at home in Israel than you did in New Jersey with me. I didn’t know back then that there were some people who were not allowed to feel at home. I didn’t know about all the people, some of them my indigenous ancestors who had been pushed out of New Jersey. I didn’t know that the both the Caribbean islands that more of my ancestors came from used to be full of indigenous people who were made to disappear by the same ways and means that my ancestors were forced to live there.
I knew we had something in common. You were my friend. I didn’t know how much. Sometime later I learned in a young adult fiction book about the kibbutz. Collective work and living. It seemed very socialist, very Kwanzaa. I didn’t know back then either that the man who invented Kwanzaa had tied up some outspoken women in his organization to pipes in his basement and tortured them for being exactly the type of person I am, for speaking their minds.
I learned about the Kibbutz and it resonated and I thought not about pipes or poisoned water or smallpox blankets. I thought about you my friend Maya with deep eyes like mine. I imagined you peaceful and working and growing up and like me and working and responsible. I never thought of you when I heard people say “peace in the middle east” to mean goodbye on Arsenio Hall. It never occurred to me that you were part of a war.
I learned about driedls and latkas in elementary school. I played Hannukah games every year. In middle school I found the ofikomen at my friend Jessica’s family passover. I went with my almost completely Jewish seventh grade class to the Holocaust Museum in DC and cried. I saw a boy named Jared, the same name as my brother lose it on the bus and slam his hand against the window when we saw a man with a poster saying the holocaust was not real. How can people deny genocide, I thought. I was in Washington DC getting ready to visit the White House. How can people deny genocide, I thought. I knew that I was far from Aryan, I knew that many people of color and people who were any kind of different were murdered by the Nazi state. How can people deny genocide, I thought. I was looking at a big white house that I didn’t know was designed and built by enslaved people. I was not thinking about that. How can people deny genocide? I was not thinking about indigenous people from the land that I stood on at all.
I learned more and more Hebrew words in high school. I identified with a people who remembered that they had been enslaved and who remembered that God wanted them to be free. At the Passover services that I went to, there were quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. And my first year in college, my roommate Alyssa and I made the most beautiful blue and white hannukah decorations for our all-girls Ivy League dorm hallway where June Jordan used to go to school. Where Edward Said was teaching at the time. Lanterned dreidles, stars and candles.
I never heard Palestine mentioned in a classroom, but I saw orthodox Jewish men and younger students shouting at each other, deep in argument in the middle of campus one day the most passionate verbal arguing I had ever seen, right in the middle. I had no idea what they could be arguing about. I didn’t know that a Palestinian student would call my school the Zionist University of the United States. I didn’t know that years later, my friends and loved ones would be in a shouting match with men and women our age who believed that Israeli military forces could do whatever they wanted to people in Gaza and to anyone who dared to help them. I only knew about Zion as a place in the bible, and in the matrix and in a love song that Lauryn Hill wrote for her son. And then I saw an email about protesting the occupation of Palestine, and then right away, right right away an email that said there was no such place as Palestine and that if you looked in any atlas you would never find such a country.
I was shocked. I had assumed that Palestine was in eastern Europe because those were the countries that my middle school geography class no longer described correctly. I had no idea that Palestine was a place living in the hearts of thousands of displaced people. I had no idea that Palestine was a place denied so that a place called Israel could tell Jewish people that they had finally arrived home. Years of liberal education had given me no clue that there was such a place as Palestine. No literature class taught me that Mamoud Darwish, a Palestinian poet had said that possibly Palestine was a metaphor. I had no sense of Palestine as a history, as a critique or as a possibility as a secret and suppressed name for dignity and freedom. I had no idea, Maya, that you lived in Palestine.
I was yet to cry hearing Suheir Hammad, with a distinct Brooklyn June Jordan cadence read her poetry at the Poetry is Not a Luxury event in honor of Audre Lorde. I had not met my beloved sister comrades Nadia, a Palestinian woman from Detroit or Mai’a barred from Israel and living in Cairo. So now I am writing a letter, 24 years later to you, my best friend Maya, who moved to Palestine when we were little kids, in honor of you and of friendship and of the place, Palestine, where I could never address a letter to you. I don’t know where you live now, or what you call it. I don’t know if you are an Israeli peace activist, or if you have already served in the military and if you are one of the people who was proud when Israeli marines spoke out against the attacks on a flotilla sending aid to Gaza. I don’t know if you came back to the states to go to college or if you are in love or if you have lost someone or if you are a parent. I don’t know who you grew up to be or where you are now or what you believe.
I want you to know though, wherever you are, something important about who I have grown up to be. Like June Jordan who says she was born a black woman, “now I am become a Palestinian.” I always felt very peaceful around you, very loved and accepted, very much myself. I hope that we can be friends again soon.