Don’t Have to Do Nothing: Be Free (and still) Be Loved
Y’all. Don’t get sick of Lucille Clifton on my account but I swear she just don’t run out of brilliant life-saving gifts. So here is another one. In 1985 in the special 15th anniversary issue of Essence Magazine coordinated by Cheryll Y. Greene, Clifton wrote about the true freedom that women can give to each other: “to fail and not be a failure.”
When Lucille Clifton, who stunned audiences with the stark clarity of her poetry from countless stages during her lifetime, was a little girl assigned to recite a poem for the Christmas program at her church, she choked. It was not foreshadowing, it was formative. As she stood unable to remember the poem in front of all the church mothers encouraging her and expecting her to perform her mother stood up for her. She felt pressured. She said “I don’t wanna.” And her mother stood up in front of God and everybody and smiled at her child and she said one small sentence that changes the meaning of life for black girls growing up in patriarchy and capitalism: “She don’t have to do nothing she don’t want to do.”
Can you imagine? Decades later when we were celebrating Lucille Clifton’s birthday with her (we didn’t know it would be her last) at the Furious Flower poetry center all of us black feminist poets, teachers, daughters gushed with open jealousy at the power and freedom of that statement. Imagine! She don’t have to do nothing she don’t want to do. So many negatives adding up to the positive clarity that black girls are inherently valuable, love-able, period. When had someone ever stood up and said that for us? When in a world of forced labor, coerced sex, billions of expectations? When had anyone even dared to suggest that we were not valuable because of what we produced, what we created, who we entertained, how well we pretended to be happy? When had we said it for ourselves? don’t have to do nothing.
Now I was raised to know that I only have to do two things: stay black, and live. But my interpretation of “stay black and live” has been contorted by internalized capitalism and a system that still judges me based on what my being produces for the market. The refrain that I thought was my heartbeat said “do something do something do something do something” interrupting any stillness with the imperative to produce, to prove, to perform. But here comes Lucille Clifton’s mother: she don’t have to do nothing.
And how much do we crave that freedom… in the eyes of black people we love who want us to perform blackness in a way that they can more easily consume, in the eyes of non-black people who want the same thing, in the faces of well meaning would be mentors who think we will only be happy with ourselves if we do it their way, in reflections we catch of ourselves in windows thinking we look lost because there is no name for where we are going.
And so today. I need Lucille Clifton’s mother, audacious and willing to stand up in front of anyone and say you do not need to stand on a stage to honor God. You do not need to say or do anything in order to be a reflection of divine love. You already are. Even in a puddle at the foot of your bed you are already supreme beautiful unlikely priceless example of the abundance of life. And you know what? Life if so abundant that it places refractions of that same brilliance in all of us, and so there is no need to do it all, there is no need to own brilliance, there is no need to prove and show and compete because life is so abundant that it happens in our honor even when we don’t wake up and make it happen.
Who knew Lucille Clifton’s mama circa 1940 was an anti-capitalist? Because capitalism would have us believe that we only deserve to be here because of what we produce, and even in our counter-cultures, even in our movements we reproduce the same idea. We only deserve to be here because of what we can produce that other people will buy with their money, time or attention. Our experience of our own lives is secondary, it is only the means of production, it is the products that matter, and unless we make ourselves into both factories and widgets we are not valuable. We believe that. I know I push myself past that belief about every hour on the hour. One of the major lessons of the Mobile Homecoming Experiential Archive Project has been that because of the steep lean (and lien) of capitalism on even our visionary hearts the tendency is to emphasize the documentary film, the photographs, the podcasts, the archived interviews, the presentations…the products over the experience, the priceless opportunity to be present with each other, which is not for sale. Which documents can only gesture towards. Which cannot be sold.
But luckily Lucille Clifton listened to her momma and told us what she said. We can be free and still be loved. We can be still and still be a movement. We are not failures even when we fail. We are life. Miraculous irregardless.
Maybe we can institute Lucille Clifton’s mama moments for ourselves and for each other. Maybe we can step in and affirm each other just because. Maybe we can stand up for each other when even our own communities say to us how dare you not be superwoman every second of the day. Maybe we can save the day in our own way in our own language. Nuh-uh. She don’t have to do nothing she don’t want to do. She don’t have to do nothing. And she is still fierce fly and worthy of all praise. All of it.
So here is a spare one for each one of you in the time when no one is there to say it, remember that I already said it: you don’t have to do nothing to earn my love. nothing to earn all the blessings of the universe. nothing to earn a symphony in every pore of your skin playing the song of you. nothing to deserve my deepest gratitude for your existence. nothing to earn a place in my heart that you can always come home to. nothing. you already have it. all praise. you have everything.
love always and already,
P.S. Get ready for a summer filled with opportunities to see the faces of those of us who will scream at the sight of you and open our arms:
*TONIGHT: Young Black Gift: A Birthday Toast to Lorraine Hansberry (@ the Inspiration Station in Durham)
*Sunday May 22nd 5pm (@ the Inspiration Station in Durham) Rainbow Reclamations: (Blue) Once I Was Pregnant: Abortion, Miscarriage and Rebirth
*Friday, May 27th (@ the Rush Center in Atlanta) THE GEMINI JAM/FIST PUMP FRIDAY featuring a performance by the LOST BOIS, gemini juice and dancing all night long!
*June 9-15 INDIGO DAYS in Durham, NC
*June 23-26 ALLIED MEDIA CONFERENCE in Detroit (featuring the Shawty got Skillshare, the Generations of Brilliance Track and the Visionary Sci-Fi Track)
*Thursdays in June 6pm (@ the Eleanor on Rigsbee in Durham) Lucille Clifton Shapeshifter Sessions: http://blackfeministmind.wordpress.com/2011/04/17/announcing-lucille-clifton-shapeshifter-survival-school-summer-session-2012/
*August 15-19th Juneteenth Freedom Academy Week-long Intensive: Rituals for Educators
*September 1-4th Queerky Black Girls, Mobile Homecoming and ZAMI NOBLA Black Gay Pride Healing and Connection Retreat!!!