Oya’s Teachings

Hurricane Sandy humbled every one of the 19 million people in the New York City metropolitan area. But it humbled some more than others in an increasingly economically divided city…

Instead of heading home to their families as the winds picked up, the city’s army of cashiers, waiters and other service workers remained in place.

Divides between the rich and the poor are nothing new in New York, but the storm brought them vividly to the surface. There were residents … who could invest all of their time and energy into protecting their families. And there were New Yorkers who could not.

Those with a car could flee. Those with wealth could move into a hotel. Those with steady jobs could decline to come into work. But the city’s cooks, doormen, maintenance men, taxi drivers and maids left their loved ones at home…

Manhattan, the city’s wealthiest and most gentrified borough, is an extreme example. Inequality here rivals parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Last year the wealthiest 20 percent of Manhattan residents made $391,022 a year on average, according to census data. The poorest 20 percent made $9,681.

All told, Manhattan’s richest fifth made 40 times more money than its poorest fifth, up from 38 times in 2010. Only a handful of developing countries – such as Namibia and Sierra Leone – have higher inequality rates…

~These are some of David Rohde’s words for the Atlantic this week

Though Hurricane Sandy has left the NYC area now, she is obviously still with us.  My own university’s students were evacuated and moved to other dormitories with classes canceled all week due to the wind damage on multiple campuses.  The next two weeks of my classes will be completely redesigned, to say the least.  And still, we fared so much better than others.  Businesses (the Mom-and-Pop joints vs the chains) in my own Brooklyn neighborhood are only slowly, very slowly, piecing things back together again.  David Rohde’s words (above) really resonated with me today and reminded me of the ways that capital’s newest modes of exploitation leave the rich safe in even a storm, something that should not surprise us given what we saw with Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.  I appreciated Rohde’s words but it didn’t take a hurricane to see the inhumanity of Manhattan’s elite and their world against the supra-humanity of the working class/working poor folk who keep this city afloat even when there is no superstorm.  So today I also have some other thoughts here… namely, that the safe-keeping of the elite comes solely from the care of the rest of us, what Rohde points out.  This means that we know how to give care to others and to ourselves.  I would dare to even say that all we impoverished or just-gettin-by caretakers know the path to a looming humanity that the wealthiest 20 percent simply will never reach.  That’s simply the price they pay for their capital.  We need never wonder  if real solutions to serious social issues will ever come from them.

I was really moved by the email sent out today from Resident Teacher, Shastri Ethan Nichtern, of the Shambala Center in New York City.  Nichtern wants us to think deeply about all of the messages of loved ones trying to contact us and about all of the support that everyday people are giving to one another.  Nichtern reminds us that, at times like these, nature forces us to connect with our own humanity and the humanity of others.  The connections we make take on new meanings, a kind of vividness not unlike what happens in meditation practice.  As Nichtern says: “we don’t have to work to uncover our heart, because the tragedy uncovers Bodhicitta for us. The tragedy itself IS open-heartedness… It is a heartbreaking time, but a ripe time for practicing, connecting with each other, and helping those who need it as much as we possibly can.”  I am moved by these words and by those with the humanity to reach such possibilities.

I told my students this week in our revised curricular plan for our course African American Literacies and Education that I felt compelled to make a nod to Oya (a daunting figure that the African Diaspora has re-Christened and brought with them all over the “New World.”)

Though I am not an Orisha scholar, I do know that Oya is considered one of the most powerful Orisha, a Warrior-Queen, responsible for, you guessed it, HURRICANES and all things related to storms and winds.  Oya brings rapid change to the places that need transformation.  She is both ardently loved and deadly feared and for good reason: she can destroy everything in her path, whether that be injustice or an entire village.  Oya also protects all women, especially their leadership power, in order to make sure that we all know that she can strike you down just as easily as she can shelter you, all of which are necessary to bring about change.  It should be quite obvious, especially this week, why people of African Descent, and black women in particular, from Cuba (where she is called Olla) to Haiti (where she is called Aido-Wedo) to New Orleans (where she is called Brigette) to Brazil (where she is called Yansa), would hold on to Oya so fiercely and lovingly.  This is a point that seems an appropriate reminder in an African American Literacies/Education class since what we have here is a system of meaning that not only attempts to understand and contextualize hurricanes and storms as central to an ecosystem but also, simultaneously, offers a completely different metaphor for women’s discourse, public life, and humanity!  There are always alternative systems of meaning and some of us maintain them, despite the devastation and daily havoc that capitalism has always wreaked on our lives.