Last week, I spotted a cardinal sitting on a nest of twigs and branches on a tall shrub right outside my living room window. My son and I have been mesmerized by her as she makes her journey into motherhood. Cardi Bee, as we call her, has been teaching me a lot about maintaining a sense of purpose. She is very clear about hers. She’s single-mindedly focused on making sure that her eggs hatch, that they are protected, that they survive. She doesn’t seem deterred or distracted, not by spring storms or her own hunger, and not by the other birds, squirrels and occasional bunnies that criss-cross the yard. She doesn’t seem to receive support either; no other creature has come by, at least not during our waking hours.
When protests began in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, Daniela Bayon was ready to take action both on the streets and at her workplace. As a marketing manager for a global tech company,Bayon wanted to support her Black colleagues and organize companywide conversations about racism. “There was a mass awakening everywhere, including at work,” she said. “People kept asking: What can I do?”
On December 31st, 2019, we went to a tribute concert for Aretha Franklin at the Kennedy Center. It was New Year’s Eve. You dressed for it. You arrived; heads turned. There you were in a stunning multi-colored dress made by a designer you loved. You were regal and glamorous. Just look at the photos.
During the performance, we sang along to the songs we knew by heart, and of course, we made our usual snarky talk. Your easy, ready laugh rang out. And then, a taste of bitter reality. The band played “A Change is Gonna Come” – and we instinctively reached for each other’s hands. Both of us felt the weight of that song, and what it signified about having faith in the eventual triumph of justice despite the odds.
But the lyrics had a deeply sad resonance that night, given your own personal journey:
It’s been too hard living, but I’m afraid to die ‘Cause I don’t know what’s up there above the sky It’s been a long, a long time coming But I know a change’s gonna come, oh, yes, it will
We held hands tightly and cried together.
You knew that a change was on its way. In May 2019, you began to write about your journey with cancer. You transformed words that we are afraid of into figures with ages, genders, feelings, and textures. You named them: Death, Vulnerable, Freedom. You wrote about how the journey you were on was propelling you towards self-forgiveness, a deeper understanding of legacy and sacrifice, and freedom. A passage of yours that moves me is this one (there are many more here):
I understand now that freedom is real. Freedom is here. Cancer showed it to me. It was there all along and was simply for me to choose. My own fears, corrupted beliefs about who I should be, and insecurities about who I wasn’t, are a form of bondage and self-flagellation. They were habitual, and they were fueled by a society that was comfortable with me in that state. There is no manual for how to be free. There are abundant resources for how to remain enslaved. I cannot look to anyone else to understand how to do freedom. I have to define my own freedom and live it intentionally each day.
Allison: a change has indeed come. A light has gone out in my life, and in the lives of so many who hold you dear. May you be free in your fullest power, grace, and dignity.
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A friend noted, as I was remembering you, that it seemed like we have known each other for decades. It’s true. Even though we met only six years ago, it seems like you have been in my life for much longer because of the depth of connection we shared. Our paths crossed at a gathering of racial justice leaders called the Solidarity Summit. I remember wanting to hear as much from you as possible because when you spoke, wisdom, strength, and fierceness exuded from you. When you spoke, everyone in our circle leaned forward and listened intently. You had already inhabited the seat of our loving and discerning elder.
We formed a close friendship in the ensuing months. You loved to do podcasts; you had started podcasting at your kitchen table years ago and you encouraged me to start one of my own, introducing me to your producer. You wanted to write a book, and I suggested tips and ideas. You were there when I navigated life’s valleys, providing sound advice and your perfectly-timed sarcasm. I met your mother and daughter; you met my brother and son. We shared spiritual and physical healers. And we laughed, full-throated and uninhibited belly laughs, every time we connected.
As your life so irrevocably changed, you remained constant in so many ways. Despite the pain, the hospital stays, and the uncertainty, you were strong, calm, and anchored. You were so clear about yourself: where you came from, what values you embodied, what your purpose was, who formed your community, and where we are all heading (liberation). You continued to give to everyone around you. Your love for your children – all children – knew no bounds. Not a single conversation between us would pass without you inquiring about my son by name and asking what was hurting in my life, and how you could tend to it (“what can I do to help?”). Your work remained your north star. From law to nonprofits to philanthropy, you connected people and ideas and resources to change the lives of Black babies and children and reshape the education system. The discomfort and pain you felt didn’t dampen your full-on smile, your easy laugh, your empathetic questions, and your raised-eyebrow-don’t-give-me-that-BS look (which invariably got the truth out of me). That is why our friendship felt like it spanned decades; it was life-affirming, giving, enriching, motivating, all-encompassing.
Last month, on one of our video chats, we discussed rage: the rage inside us, how society shuns women of color, particularly Black women, when they express their anger and fierceness, and how rage can be clearing and cleansing. I mentioned that I had given a name to the rage inside me, in order to speak to her, learn from her, and guide her. A few days later, you texted me: “Meet Oya. She’s ready.”
I looked up the meaning of Oya after you passed. It is the name of a female spirit in Yoruba, a West African language. Oya is a warrior who has power over the storms and the winds – from a gentle breeze to a hurricane. She is also a protector of women, and a catalyst for rebirth and new life.
It’s not surprising, Allison, that you would choose Oya as the moniker for the fiery goddess in you. Not one bit. The night you transitioned, a storm outside awakened me. “It’s Oya,” I thought. You’re free.
Safe passage, dearest friend. I know that you will continue to protect the people whom you love, encourage us to live into our fullness, and channel the winds of justice and liberation, just as you did every day while you were on this realm. I love you. Till we meet again.
If you are reading this and knew and loved Allison too, I’m sending love and care your way. If you didn’t know Allison, please get to know her powerful work. You can find Allison’s writing here.You can find her podcast, Schoolhouse: Equity in Education, here.And you can find information about the organization she led, the Communities for Just Schools Fund, here.
Mapping Our Social Change Roles in Times of Crisis
For South Asians committed to ending state violence against Black people, it has always been clear that our work goes further, that we must also work to undo anti-Blackness within our own communities. The hard conversations with our parents and our uncles and aunties about white supremacy, anti-Black racism, and solidarity are not usually easy or fruitful.
But there are moments of clarity and windows of possibility.
Hindutva nationalism, or Hindu nationalism, is a right-wing political ideology rooted in the beliefs of supremacy and superiority: “Hindus first” and “Hindus only.” It’s on the rise in India through discriminatory government policies and state-sanctioned violence targeting Muslims, Dalits, and religious minorities (read this and this). Its presence is also evident in the United States through academia, politics, and connections between the Trump and Modi Administrations (read this, this, this, this, this, and this).
Movement leaders often wonder: “How can I keep doing this work that I love and believe in — at the pace I’m going?”
Over the past three years, I have participated in the Solidarity Summit, a space for movement leaders working on racial justice issues. We meet regularly to build relationships, sharpen our political analysis, and learn about each other’s communities. Not surprisingly, our conversations often come back around to a similar question: How can I keep doing this work at the pace I’m going?
How often do you say, “I stand with …”, to show your support for communities and causes? We pledge to stand with people in Kashmir and New Zealand who are affected by human rights violations and hate violence. We pledge to support causes from Black Lives Matter to Abolish ICE to Repeal the Muslim Ban. Solidarity has become a buzz word to signal what our values are and how we plan to show up for people and causes.
How can solidarity be more than a word, a transaction, a state of mind? How can it be a practice that we engage in time and again, anchored by a values-based framework and political and historical analyses of oppression? How can transformative solidarity practice lead to mutual liberation and collective power?
When I first heard about the film “Blinded By The Light,” which pays homage to Bruce Springsteen through the experiences of a Pakistani teenager in Great Britain, I was beside myself with excitement. Finally, here was big-screen affirmation that people of color are part of Springsteen’s fan base (yes, we exist).
Directed by Gurinder Chadha (“Bend It Like Beckham”) and based on a memoir by Sarfraz Manzoor, “Blinded By The Light” delivers on its key message with earnestness: Springsteen’s music is universal. Javed (Viveik Kalra) is a teenager struggling with family expectations and racism during the 1980s in Luton, a predominantly White town northwest of London with a growing Pakistani community. Javed’s life changes when his Sikh friend, Roops, introduces him to the Boss via a pair of well-worn cassette tapes. As Javed struggles to connect with his immigrant father and find his own voice as a budding writer, Springsteen’s music becomes the soundtrack to his dreams and disappointments.
I recognized my own Springsteen journey in parts of Javed’s life. In 1984, the year Springsteen’s “Born in The USA” was released, my family moved from Kerala, India, to Louisville, Kentucky. All of a sudden, I became a 12-year-old outsider looking into a world that I couldn’t penetrate because of my accent, brown skin and immigration status. Music became my refuge, and I found a home in Springsteen’s lyrics.
Like Javed in “Blinded By The Light,” I survived my immigrant adolescence in Kentucky on my Walkman, listening to songs like “The Promised Land” and “Growin’ Up.” They provided a window of hope that a different world existed beyond the badlands of bullying and isolation I navigated daily. And just like Javed’s parents, my immigrant parents didn’t understand my connection to Springsteen’s music. Over time though, Javed’s father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir), has an epiphany: “Springsteen is Pakistani!”
Of course he is. Though Springsteen is held up as the poet of White working class America, his music transcends borders and identities and explores how people on the margins can belong in a world hell-bent on denying their humanity. Springsteen undoubtedly speaks to White people who lose their factory jobs or return home from fighting abroad only to find their government has forgotten them. But his music is also for and about people like Malik and Noor, Javed’s parents in the film.
Malik and Noor are not so different from characters like Mary and Johnny who figure prominently in Springsteen’s songs. Malik loses his job at a local car factory while Noor (Meera Ganatra) sews clothes for White women and pawns her gold jewelry to make ends meet. Meanwhile, the National Front organizes a White supremacist march through town and the local mosque is vandalized with a pig’s head. Javed watches with shame and shock as a group of White children urinate into the mailbox of a family friend’s house. “Pakis, go home!” is a constant refrain, spraypainted on walls and garages throughout Luton’s neighborhoods. “I wish I’d never come to this country,” Malik says, giving voice to the lie of the immigrant dream.
On its own, “Blinded By The Light” is a moving film about the British Pakistani immigrant experience and the universality of Springsteen’s music. But it has particular resonance given what is happening today in America, where hate violence is rising, the Muslim ban is in place and immigrants live in fear. The scenes of exclusion and racism depicted in the film could easily be taking place in America’s neighborhoods, schools and public places right now.
Since Donald Trump took office, the assaults on the rights and bodies of people who look like Javed and me have intensified. I often return to Springsteen’s music about immigration and race to find meaning and possibility. “American Skin (41 Shots)” speaks about the violence that Black people routinely face at the hands of law enforcement; “Matamoros Banks” recounts how migrants face immense danger as they cross the southern border; and “Long Walk Home” reminds us of the challenging journey ahead to reclaim and redeem a nation that’s taken one too many wrong turns.
Perhaps this is why Springsteen’s music resonates so deeply with some people of color like me. In his lyrics, we find a familiar yearning for belonging and liberation, and a recognition that the system—whether it is an uncaring veterans’ affairs office, an arbitrary geographic border or a racist cop—is often working against us. How we overcome and transform these realities depends on how we come together across class, race and faith lines to lift up each other’s stories, hopes and dreams, and change the systems that weigh us down. In “Blinded By The Light,” these interventions often happen through transformations in the film’s White characters. Javed’s literature teacher enters his writing into a competition that takes him to the Boss’ home of New Jersey, and his stoic neighbor speaks up and reminds Javed and his family that they are a vital part of the Luton community despite the racism they endure.
In the midst of these daily struggles, Springsteen’s music offers the possibility of escape, community and joy, and in the film, we see these moments come to life. South Asian kids like Javed’s sister, Shazia (Nikita Mehta) cut school to take part in daytimers, club events where they freely dance to bhangra music. Javed and Roops take over their school’s radio station to play Springsteen’s famous escape song, “Born To Run,” and frolic through the streets of Luton with their friends while belting out its lyrics: “Together, we could break this trap. We’ll run ’til we drop, baby we’ll never go back.”
“Blinded By The Light” is heartwarming and real at once, and doesn’t sugarcoat the realities of working class British Pakistani communities. And it just might catalyze an exploration of Bruce Springsteen’s oeuvre for a new generation of South Asians. The film reaffirms Springsteen, who turns 70 this year, as a community storyteller, bridge builder, cultural interlocutor and guide to the doors of the promised land. But as Javed realizes, escape and liberation don’t come easily, whether in the context of family or community. It’s on each of us to recognize that the ties that bind us together are greater than the divides that threaten to tear us apart.