A couple of years ago, in my last days of Washington DC before life would take me on an unexpected journey, I was at Sankofa Bookstore attending a community event. I struck up a conversation with two elders about what we need to do as a community to lift ourselves up out of a morass that is destroying so many lives. At one point in the discussion, I told one of the elders about a video I put together that touched on the notion of community reinvestment. I did not have my laptop on me and my cell phone batter was on its last breath. Out of the corner of my eyes, I saw a laptop that was open.
Without thinking twice, I plopped down and pulled up the video I put together and started to show it to the two new friends I had just gained. Half-way into the video, a guy entered the bookstore and started to walk over to the gathering with full vigor and steam. Initially, I was under the impression that he wanted to watch the video as well. He had other things on his mind as he came over to the table and slammed the laptop with force and asked what the hell I was doing. I was actually taken aback for a second but I regained my composure enough to tell him I was just showing a video to the two gentlemen.
The conversation went downhill quickly but I realized that I was in the wrong for I was using this guy’s laptop without permission. I could have chose to met force with force and a tiff could have escalated into something a lot worse. So I told the brother that my intention was not to disrespect his possession and that I was just caught up in the excitement of the conversation I was having with the two elders and wanted to show them a video I had just finished editing and uploaded on YouTube. I apologized to him; he was in the right and I did not really let the incident bother me too much initially.
Yet, in spite of my apology and my sincerity in conveying to him that my intention was not malicious, the brother only half-heartily accepted my concession. From that day forward, each time I ran into him at the bookstore, he looked at me with a glare and refused to let past wrong be forgotten. On a couple of occasions I went out of my way to make amends as I approached him to let him know that I was not dismissive of his feeling. But an extended hand one too many times was returned with brutally cold shoulders. There are only so many times I will knock on a door out of kindness before I return back pettiness with indifference; after the third time that man became a ghost and non-existent as far as I was concerned.
But a week later someone pulled me aside and told me that this brother was locked up for a long time and if he seemed like he overreacted, he had a reason to do so. This friend told me about the prison culture and how one of the few possessions that inmates have to their names is respect. This is why some are willing to die over honor; treading on someone’s dignity in any way is an invitation to fists, shanks and violence. I understood when he broke it down to me this way; though I’ve never been imprisoned to know any better, I realized how those with little to their names could end up being overly protective of the little they do have.
Though I have had my encounters with hardship throughout my life and I too know what it was like to grow up in working class struggles, in all honesty I have been blessed. I’ve never really felt the sting of destitution; even in my seasons of privation, I always felt in my heart an abundance of riches. For the past two years, I’ve been without a possession to my name yet I never felt indigent. So the brother’s reaction to me was foreign; if the situation was reversed, my reaction would not have been anger but a friendly reminder that the laptop he was using was mine. I would have actually joined in the gathering and watched the video instead of being livid that he was using my laptop without my permission.
Yet at some point, I too reverted to anger and antipathy. One too many attempts to make amends being ignored, I let an external reaction bend my light into anger too. I understand now that both of us were fighting ghosts. The brother with the laptop was fighting the ghost of scarcity and the coarseness that is inculcated in the heart when human beings are locked up against their will. I too had my own ghosts for my patience turns into indignation when I feel as though people are taking advantage of my kindness or seeing my giving nature as some type of weakness. Both of us were locked up, he with bars and I with scars—we were letting our past dictate our reaction.
These are the ghosts who bust many of us. We let past pains and injustices be the prisms that guide our steps. We fight battles from the past on a daily basis without knowing it. When we get pissed off at someone and react in anger at the actions of others, most of the time we are just relitigating old cases where someone hurt us with either indifference or calculated malice. It took me a two year exodus and a year of looking at myself in the mirror before I realized that most of my battles were within and injuries from time past. Though the healing continues, the ghosts don’t bust me as hard as they used to. I hope that you too look within and confront old ghosts so they no longer bust your happiness.
It’s fitting that this experience took place at Sankofa Book Store. You see, sankofa is a Ghanaian mythical bird that gives to itself the egg of its labor. Sankofa literally means “Go back and get it”. Life in this way is nothing but a sankofa, we nourish our spirits or starve our souls based on perspective. If we choose to go back and see nothing but wrongs that were done to us, we will imprison ourselves in perpetual bitterness. Or we can go back and see the hardships we were given as an opportunity to reach others and teach them of a way forward and heal the world in the process. One small act of love at a time is the egg that will mend the world #SankofasGift
“Work like you don’t need the money. Love like you’ve never been hurt. Dance like nobody’s watching.” ~ Satchel Paige
If you appreciate the message behind this write up and you too refuse to let ghosts bust your happiness, share this article on social media using #SankofasGift
Check out the Ghion Cast below where I discuss the ways that ghosts in the past and in the present try to blow out our candles and how to not let circumstances define our happiness.
Life is short, find a reason to dance always.
Originally from Ethiopia with roots to Atse Tewodros II, Lij Teodrose is a former community organizer whose writing was incorporated into Barack Obama's South Carolina primary victory speech in 2008. He pivoted away from politics and decided to stand for collective justice after experiencing the reality of the forgotten masses. His writing defies conventional wisdom and challenges readers to look outside the constraints of labels and ideologies that serve to splinter the people. Lij Teodrose uses his pen to give a voice to the voiceless and to speak truth to power.
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