Umi Selah

umi selahOne day . . . when the glory comes . . . it will be ours, it will be ours. Ohhohhhhoo . . . one day . . . When the war is won . . . It will be sure . . . It will be sure . . . I want to introduce myself, my name is Umi Selah.

I gotta center myself. Anybody with B.O.L.D.? Black Organizer for Leadership and Dignity? Anybody? Anyone Black Love? We learn to center ourselves, so I'm gonna center myself. I'm gonna ask that the ancestors be with me. I wanna tell you all a story about my name.

Now I'm not gonna act like I'm not the same person I was two months ago. I'm not gonna hit you with that. There are many things that are similar with Umi and Phillip Agnew. Umi is a little bit taller though. Plays basketball; he's fantastic.

My name came to me in a dream. It was a crazy dream. It came to me on the evening of my thirtieth birthday: June 22nd, 2015. I've never had a dream like this--one that I remembered so vividly. I remembered every part of my dream. And I woke up and kinda laughed, because I thought I was awake. I thought I was awake in the dream. In the dream we were all sitting in a circle. Aja [[Monet] was there, and there was a bunch of folks and for some reason we were in Cuba. In the dream we had taken a trip to Cuba. For some reason we were talking about The Amistad--the ship. And in the dream, there was a young woman and she was saying, “You know, Cinqué? Cinqué get all the love. You know, ‘give us us free.’ But there was a slave on there, a slave woman named Umi, who was really holding it down.” And I didn't know this, and I said “Really? Really? That sounds crazy. I never heard of this Umi.” And she said “Well you know, Umi? Umi was gangster. Umi was the one. Umi? She moved to Pensacola right afterwards.” This didn't make sense in my mind, but I remember in the dream saying, “My great-grandmother is from Pensacola.” And the woman in the dream said to me, “Your name is Umi. Your name is Umi.”

I looked up the name afterwards, and it has three meanings, for everybody that thinks I just chose a name without quality meanings. It has three different meanings in multiple languages to appeal to many folks. In Japanese, it means “beach.” In Arabic, it means “mother.” In Egyptian, it means “life.” I said, “All three of those sound cool. I would like to live on the beach with my mom.”

This is beautiful. And so a few days later, Aja [Monet] said, “Why don't you look up the Amistad?” You all know the story of Amistad. I thought I knew it all, I'd seen the movie with Matthew McConaughey. I know everything about the story; obviously, they wouldn't lie to me in the film.

So I looked it up. Honestly, I knew a fair degree of the story. I knew that the captured Africans had fought back and revolted and had killed everybody on the ship. And they had left the captain and his second-in-command alive, and they told him, “Take us back to Africa. Take us back to Africa.” But they tricked them and they wound up in the northeast of the United States, and they were taken in and there was a trial. They eventually were granted their freedom by the United States government, which does that often--grant freedoms.


But the interesting thing I found out was that the ship--before the mutiny that happened--the ship had just left Havana, Cuba. I said to myself, “Man, there's no way I could have known that. That's a little bit crazy.” And so, I was on Wikipedia . . . [in] . . . the Wikipedia rabbit hole. I clicked on everything. I clicked on every name. I clicked--I clicked, I clicked. I was deep in. I was like, looking at The Godfather, I don't know how. I began reading about the experience of our people on slave ships. And it was then that I began to really feel that the literal meaning of my name was trivial compared to the journey that I was supposed to be on.

I began to read about the experience of our people on slave ships. And that shit was horrible, y'all. One of the stories that I read was of an abolitionist reverend who fancied himself an abolitionist pirate. And what he would do is, after the transatlantic slave trade was abolished, he would go with a bunch of abolitionists to the high seas and look for slave ships. They would board them and they would liberate the slaves. He was a pretty gangster dude. And in one of the stories he talked about boarding this one specific slave ship. And on the slave ship he began to describe in vivid detail the conditions of the ship. He said the stench was one that would cause a man, or a woman, to collapse.

He spoke about a ship that had been at sea for seventeen days, storing over 500 Africans when it left the west coast of Africa, minus the fifty-six that it had thrown overboard. He talked about opening the hull--the grate that covered our people. And he talked about how small the area was; how they were stacked side-to-side-to-side laying down. Some of them chained two and three together. Stacked like muffins in an oven. He said the height from one floor to the next wasn't wide enough for them to ever turn. So for sometimes months our people would lay, just like this, in their own stool, in the stool of their neighbors, in their own vomit. He said there was a part of the ship where our people were stuffed in between each other's legs--hands in between legs--and some of them had to sit because they hadn't found the space to lay down for seventeen days. And he said on board the ship, it was eighty-nine degrees but the temperature couldn't read how hot it was, that smell that emanated from the bow of that ship.

There was a portion there, as he rounded out his depiction of the ship, where he was telling his abolitionist friends what he had seen on this ship, and they said, “Brother, that's nothing. Because we boarded a ship just a little while ago where the slaves were tied two and three together. Sometimes we would pull one and the other two men would be dead, chained to him.” They said that there was a suffocating, stifling stench, and that they could not breathe. Many of them were in various stages of suffocation and death. Some of them were foaming at the mouth. And he went on to say that, in their last gasp, in their last ability to grasp onto life-giving air, that some of the men would strangle the man next to them. And that some of the women would dig at the eyes of the women next to them, so that they could just breathe. He said some of the children had died. And that when they came up aboard the ship, they would kill each other for a drop of water. And all they could remember was the stench. All they could remember was the stench.

I want to be very, very honest with y'all right now. I'm not a movement leader. Sometimes I feel dead inside because in this movement, this movement moment, sometimes I feel suffocated by a stench of death. Sometimes I feel numb. Things that would cause my thumb to stop and pause now I can pass up without the slightest glance. Everyday I'm inundated with news of somebody dying with the grotesque details of the last seconds of some of our sisters' and brothers' lives. And, I have to be honest, I'm tired of it. I can only speak for myself but sometimes I feel a dark cloud over the movement. I feel that we've decided to show folks that black lives matter by proving that only black deaths matter.

I want to be honest with you for a second and tell y'all that I'm not a movement leader. I'm a flawed person trying every day to do at least what I think is right but sometimes I feel a numbness. Sometimes I feel an aloofness about what's going on in the world. Sometimes I can feel a cynicism creeping up inside of me because I can feel the stench of yet another passing. Some days I feel a deep melancholy come over me and I don't want to go to the rally. I don't want to go to the vigil. I don't want to share the video. I don't want to know the story. I don't want to say the name because it gets tiring. It gets heavy. It's hard. Dang [it] feels good to say that.

We're in a moment of great, critical importance to the future of all of us. We're in a moment where we've got to remember that our lives truly do matter and we've got to prove that far before we deliver the eulogy. That our communities do matter far before blood runs in their streets. That our families matter far before their fathers, and their mothers, and their sisters, and their brothers, and their siblings are ripped from them. We've got to stop making celebrities out of people just doing their human duty. We've got to stop making celebrities out of families that have lost theirs. And we've got to remember that no matter what you say, many of us are still on that slave ship and we'll strangle somebody just to get a little breathe of air. We will dig into the brains of our sister just to get one little piece of air while they live in abundance. We've got to remember who the enemy is. We've got to remember who's the one holding the whip. And we've also got to remember a crucial thing--and I'll end it here.

You know, the more hotep of our community, they will tell you that we all came from kings and queens, and we all came from the people that built the pyramids. I've come to tell you that that is a lie. That by virtue of you being here, you probably were not a king or a queen. That you probably were just a farmer, and in the middle of the night, slavers came to take your forefather and your foremother, scared, not knowing what happened, they were placed in the bowel of a ship, arm to leg, arm to leg, arm to leg, arm to leg. I'm here to tell you that you weren't a king or a queen, but you were then a slave and you were then taken to the point of no return. And your foremother and your forefather scratched at the walls. They screamed out to Oshun in their language. They begged for forgiveness. They begged for help. They wondered what they had done to wind up in Mississippi. And they cried as their father was ripped from their family, and you weren't a king or a queen, but your forefather and your foremother, they worked every day and night beneath the beating sun of Alabama. And, they cried when they saw black bodies swinging from those southern trees. They knew very well the stench of burning flesh. I came to tell you that you were not a king or a queen, but your forefathers and foremothers plowed and plowed a plot of land. After [being] freed by this great government of ours, they plowed and plowed a plot of land that they planned to be yours. And raiding cowards in white robes came and sought to take that land away. And your forefathers and your foremothers decided to run north. No, you weren't a king or queen, but they decided to settle in Cleveland and Chicago and in New York and in St. Louis. And late at night, they would think about you. They said, “I don't have much to give but my life, and I will give it for you.” And every single day they withstood the insults. They withstood the “boy,” the “girl.” They withstood the sitting in the back. They withstood the fear and the fury of police because they knew that they didn't come from kings or from queens but they came from survivors.

When you think about that slave ship and you think about that passage and you break it down to the month and the nautical miles that we traveled--that our people traveled--in the darkness, and in the stench of death, it feels familiar doesn't it? But I'm reminded about a ship that came to me in a dream. An Amistad whose captured Africans rose up and fought for their freedom. They call out to us today.

A weird kind of footnote in my story. A classmate of mine three weeks ago added me on Instagram. And her name was “Black Pensacola.” It's a true story. I went to her page. And the last post she had posted was a [paraphrased] quote from Cinqué, saying that, “I call out to my ancestors and they will be there with me.”

As I stand to defend myself, my family, my community, my people, my ancestors will be there with me. And they're here with us today. They're here with us today, saying, “We have a beautiful history, but the one we will create in the future will astonish the world.” Saying, “You will find me in the whirlwind.” Saying, “You can find me in the whirlwind.” Saying, “Up, you mighty race.” Saying, “Up, you mighty race. Up, you mighty race. Accomplish what you will.”