Albion Through My Eyes / Nicolás Dumit Estévez Raful
In their Jackets
Not wanting to be late for my meeting with Mr. Bonner and his colleague, I dash out of the Bobbitt Visual Arts Center heading for his office at the Albion First United Methodist Church. I can see two men chatting calmly through the building’s glass door as I, on the other hand, hurry towards them. Once inside, I find Mr. Bonner smiling, as he comments to Maurice Barry (A.K.A. Big Moe) that I am walking like a New Yorker. However, my lesson for the day does not center on punctuality. I am only 3.5 minutes in arrears. The learning that waits for me is about speaking truth and it happens as I pull the audio recorder from my bag and assure Big Moe that it is not on, and that he can share only that with which he feels comfortable. His response comes with as much kindness as sincerity. Whatever he would say when the recording device is off, he would say again when I would hit ‘record’. He is right on. I look discreetly at the black jacket he is wearing, and glimpse at his name written in diamond-like stones. But truth comes out of Big Moe’s mouth unadorned. No glitter. No rhinestones. No fancy silver studs.
From Big Moe’s narrative I infer how truth has been a tool for self-transformation and for inviting the youth he works with to use it likewise. He tells it like it is. His voice gives birth to a story that starts in Detroit amidst drugs and turmoil that leads him to jail, from which he escapes to a place called Albion. A small city of bubbling rivers and many bridges; parks and whistling trains; and undergoing a quest about its past-present-future, almost all at once. Big Moe likes it so much there that he decides to stay, but the authorities eventually catch up with him. Big Moe has no choice but to complete his time in prison. Albion would have to wait until his release several years later. In the meantime, the currents at the Forks keep whooshing and the trains proceed to run as usual, on time. Midway through our conversation Big Moe tells me about the gunshot he experienced in his years of strife, while my feet search for the grounding effect of the floor. I ponder about the language of truth, realizing that, while it can manifest itself through words, it does not rely on them. I look again at the lettering on Big Moe’s swell jacket and imagine what it would take for me to fill it in. His cellphone comes to my rescue. Salvation. It rings before I have to furnish myself with an answer. Deep breath.
Talking about jackets, I met Sherry Grice at my home on Cass Street. I offer to take her jacket, but since my place can be on the cool side, she decides to keep it on and to focus on what is of essence. Temperature fluctuations are not as important as her story about her struggles and successes with college, her work bringing youth together through 4-H programs, and the manufacturing jobs of the past that provided financial security to so many in Albion, but that also put a toll on bodies and the land. The hands that worked pouring iron. The backs and skins that dealt with heavy loads and intense heat. Her father’s story. In place of words, I imagine truth revealing itself through movements, like a factory worker. An industrial dancer who produces things that can potentially make our lives easier, happier, fuller, richer, better. Sherry leans forward on her chair to talk softly of The Voice of Albion, a poem written by Joseph Kurtz that she promises to print for me. By the way, her jacket does not leave room for my imagination. She wears this so comfortably in the now warm room, that I can’t picture myself in it. It is hers. I can tell that she has grown into it through the years. Gradually. Sherry and the poem arrive a week later. An epiphany, as I install an exhibition on Albion at the College. No haste. No rush. They know of the timely yet timeless truth they both embody; carrier and poem, “Sometimes looking backwards can be a good start. To find out where you’re going, it’s good to know where you’ve been. But looking back and walking forward is a dangerous art.” Truth, just like what the walker in this poem by Joseph Kurtz might be searching for, exists beyond a past and a future. Truth is the walker and the walk. It is.
Truth is not in the business of opening wounds for the sake of exposing them. But truth is a true healer who knows when to dig deep into the skin to apply a medicinal balm, or when to leave a cut alone to generate new cells. The same happens in regards to truth and ownership. It belongs to all and to no one in particular. My dialogue with Octavia Elaine Crawford Turner happens over the space of two weeks. It starts at a dinner at the College and continues many days later in an empty classroom at the Bobbitt Visual Arts Center. The subject, nevertheless, remains the same. At the dinner, Octavia asks me what my background is, and our exchange opens up a conversation on places of origin versus one’s actual home, race, and belonging. I tell her that I am the son of a Lebanese-Dominican mother and a dark-skinned Dominican man, who up to this day I do not know how he understood himself, racially speaking. My father died. I never asked. In the context of the U.S. he would undeniably be considered black. Octavia mentions how my external appearance as a multiracial person offers room for questioning instead of for being immediately boxed in. Whenever she enters a space full of strangers, she tells me, she is automatically labeled a female and an African American. It is as if her story has been told for her before she can take place, before she can start a dialogue. I talk with her about keeping in check the privilege that light skin confers on me, and in acknowledging my connection to an Africa that my father’s colonized generation was pushed to bury deep inside. Octavia’s jacket is not really a jacket as in a sports jacket, but more like one belonging to an elegant suit. I do not see myself in it. Not yet, since I am aware of the lifelong process that doing so entails. I am working on it. That is my truth.