Saidu Sejan-Thomas Jr.: Hey, whats up, y'all? This is our last episode of Resistance for the year. It's got some strong language in it, some heavy themes and it slaps. We'll get started right after this short break.
Saidu: So I was on Twitter the other day, and I came across this video of a young organizer named Chase. Chase was raising awareness about a pretty important issue that I think we all should be thinking more about.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Chase: Homework is basically school at home. You doing homework at home when you really supposed to do stuff in school. Ain't school the place to learn? Home is to come from school, chill, get on your tablet, get on a game, what you wanna do. But the teachers want to take, like, 30 minutes of your time, an hour of your time just to give you homework. They do this to bother you. I don't know why I do that. But that's teachers.]
Saidu: That is facts, my brother. Facts. Every rule can feel like oppression to kids, and it's mad cute. Chase has these chubby little cheeks, and he's really animated when he speaks. And he's really going for it making his case against homework. But what I love about this video is that we think it's cute and hilarious, but Chase is dead-ass serious. We're all "Aww!" And he's like, "Nah, rise up!"
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Chase: All us kids, all our kids, put your hands up. Hope for everybody see this video. No more homework! No more homework! No more homework! No more omework! Now we out.]
Saidu: Watching Chase got me thinking about when I first started working on this show. I hesitated to even call it Resistance, because the word carries a lot of weight. And rightfully so, 'cause people have bled for that. But what if the way I interpreted resistance wasn't good enough? I don't know. That anxiety's never really gone away. But in this video, Chase with his little fist raised in the air, it feels like he doesn't have any of that anxiety. Like he's saying to me, "It's cool, bro. This is also resistance." Resistance can be as small as one kid on a couch finally standing up against the tyranny of long division. It can be a tiny thing, a micro miracle that you find revolutionary that no one else seems to.
Saidu: So I'm following Chase's lead here, and I'm gonna bring you a few stories today from some of my homies and friends of the show that will hopefully get you thinking about this word, this idea, this phrase "Resistance" in a totally different way. We got a story about an act of resistance that's as small as the space between your two front teeth. Another that's as quick as the moment you have to decide whether or not to speak up, and a story about an act of resistance that's as subtle as that look your grandparents give you over the top of their glasses right before they drop some knowledge on you.
Saidu: I'm Saidu Tejan-Thomas Jr., and this—all of this—is Resistance—a show about refusing to accept things as they are. Now we out.
Saidu: So the first person I wanted to talk to for this is my friend Julian. Julian Randall. He's a writer, a dope-ass poet, and recently he told me about this one thing he'd always wanted but could never quite get his hands on: gold teeth. He says growing up, he'd turn on the TV and it felt like everybody had gold teeth.
Julian Randall: I was very much a kid who grew up in, like, early-2000s hip hop, and so it was, like, right at the fulcrum of, like, the crunk movement, right? You see, like, Lil' Jons, the Paul Walls, I think, like, Slim Thug had a couple—had a couple of golds in as well. And so for me, like, this was, like, this archetype of, like, Black Power. Since the first time that I tried very badly to rap I've wanted to have a good reason to have some golds.
Saidu: [laughs] Were you a Black boy growing up in the early 2000s if you didn't put aluminum foil on your teeth and pretend that they were a set of grills? Like ...
Julian Randall: I mean ... [laughs]
Saidu: [laughs] Like, I know ...
Julian Randall: What else was there to do?
Saidu: What else was there to do? Like, you sat around and watched 106 and Park and watched Paul Wall's "Still Tippin'" video, and you went into your kitchen and got the aluminum foil and went into the mirror like, yeah!
Julian Randall: Oh yeah.
Saidu: That's all we did as kids, it feels like.
Julian Randall: All day long. All day long.
Saidu: There were a lot of reasons real grillz didn't make sense for Julian back in the day. He was a little Black boy living in Nebraska. He went to a mostly white school. And knew his parents definitely weren't about that life.
Julian Randall: My dad was one of those, like, first waves of Black kids who like integrated the schools that they were coming into. And my mom came from, you know, a pair of Dominican immigrants who were fleeing Trujillo's secret police. So in both contexts, my parents came from long lineages of people who survived primarily by trying to make themselves as, like, non-visible as possible, into being very clever doing their jobs, like, trying their very best to make almost a religion of keeping their head down. There's a lot of ways that they taught me to be quiet because they didn't want me to be treated like a problem.
Saidu: But Julian never gave up on gold teeth. Now that he's grown and living in Chicago, he decided to really take his fascination to the next level. A couple months ago, he wrote an article for The Atlantic about gold teeth where he goes pretty deep into the history of teeth adornment. And he spoke to a lot of Black people who've decided to put their money where their mouth is. One of those people was this woman named Samiah Rahim, a 28-year-old certified diamontologist from New York. Before Samiah got her golds, what made her stand out was actually a gap between her two front teeth. It was the same gap her mother and her aunties and all the people in her family had.
Samiah Rahim: I was home schooled, so I was home a lot with like selected friends and a lot of family members. So the majority of my family members did have a gap, so it felt like, okay, this is normal. This is what, you know, a mouth is supposed to look like. You know, a little space in the middle lets me know I'm related to you kind of a thing. And it's like, if anyone didn't have a gap, I'm like, "Oh, you're not related to me." That's basically how it goes. It's the marker. That's how I saw it, at least.
Saidu: Samiah took a lot of pride in what made her different: her height, her hijab, her religion, her gap. But by the time she got to high school, she realized that's exactly the type of shit that bullies feed on.
Samiah Rahim: Literally after, you know, leaving from home school and going into, like, public school, that's when I was like, "Oh, this is not a good thing. This is a othering thing. Gotcha. Got you." The gap was the thing that made me bad. Like, the Muslim thing, the tall thing, I was like, "Yeah, yeah. I hear that every time. This is like, any time I go outside, yeah, yeah, yeah." But the gap? I was like, "Oh, that's my favorite! What do you mean?"
Saidu: That was, like, the thing that you were like, "Oh, y'all are, like, bigoted. Like, this is like—this is discrimination. Somebody call Al Sharpton." Like, this is like ... [laughs]
Samiah Rahim: Like, literally, like, people were like—and it's like, oh God, this is like early 2000s and stuff, so it's like, you know, being Muslim and stuff, oh, people call me all sorts of terrorist. That was like water off my back.
Samiah Rahim: It did not hurt the same as them talking about my gap, just because it's like, I felt like that's not something I was willing to change ever. Feels like home, literally.
Saidu: Samiah identified with her gap so much that at one point she had to get braces to straighten out her other teeth, and she asked the dentist if she could keep the gap. A couple years ago, she made a decision to accentuate it even more. She decided to fill her gap with gold. Here's Julian describing how it looks.
Julian Randall: Yeah. So the gap filler is kind of—you know, any time in a movie there's like—it's dark, but there's, like, gold light on the other side of the door and you start to see the big double doors opening. And there's like, all that light on the other side as how we often depict heaven?
Saidu: [laughs] Yes!
Julian Randall: Word. So it's like that.
Samiah Rahim: Oh my God! That's so cute! Oh my God! Yo. Flowers to the kid. Absolutely flowers. Marigolds, magnolias. All that. I love it. That's beautiful. [laughs]
Samiah Rahim: I wanted gold in my mouth specifically, to look like value. And that's the first thing I think when I think of gold is value and worth.
Saidu: Right. Right.
Samiah Rahim: And when I think of my gap, I also think value and worth. So just poetically speaking, it just made sense to me.
Saidu: Wow, that's beautiful.
Samiah Rahim: Thank you.
Saidu: The gap was already golden. You just want other people to, like, be put on notice.
Samiah Rahim: It's like gold and pearls at this point. Literally, yes.
Saidu: Samiah is a certified diamontologist. She's constantly surrounded by jewelry. She used to work at this upscale jewelry shop where she helped people assess the value of their gems, and you'd assume it was the ideal working environment for someone with gold teeth. But Samiah says there was a lot of politics around the kind of jewelry you could and could not wear. She didn't know if her managers would approve of her gap filler because no one else around her had anything like it. But she said fuck it, and wore it to work anyway.
Samiah Rahim: The decision for me to wear my grill was really just for the honor of the symbolism of my gap itself. But wearing it to work was specifically a political statement.
Samiah Rahim: I wanted to see somebody, especially when I did work where I did, I wanted to see somebody in a professional setting with grills consistently, to where it wasn't going to be something that would be picked out as something that could be othered. It would be something as simple as wearing an anklet.
Saidu: In his article, Julian points out that teeth adornment can be traced all the way back to 700 BC when the Etruscans rocked golds. And there's evidence that the Mayans drilled holes in their teeth to insert precious gems too. People living in what we now call the Philippines also did something similar. So this thing Samiah is having to normalize already has a long tradition of being normal.
Saidu: But Samiah is a Black woman living in modern day America. Choosing to treasure her gold and the gap her mother gave her to put it in takes on a whole new meaning. It turns this normal tradition into a revolutionary act. These days, Samiah is unbothered by anybody who tries to make her think twice about her golds. She's gonna continue the tradition in every setting in front of everybody.
Samiah Rahim: Because it's like for me, I've never seen anyone that looked like me personally in fine jewelry stores before ever in my life. When, like, the corporate people were there and I was like, "Hi, I'm here again, guys. And a little different. You gonna say anything? No? Fantastic! Now about that raise, guys, because you know damn well. No, seriously. Give me my damn raise." You know?
Saidu: Do you—do you have gold teeth?
Julian Randall: I don't. I don't. I have not—I have never found a jeweler who I could really, like, see eye to eye on. Like, this is the thing that I want.
Julian Randall: But someday. And all I know is that the narrative is rose gold.
Saidu: [laughs] Okay. Yo, that's a—rose gold? Rose gold, that would look fly.
Julian Randall: I like to think of it as like a rose gold bottom grill from canine to canine. I feel like that would be—that would be kind of fly.
Saidu: Julian Randall is a poet and writer based in the Chi. His article in The Atlantic is called "Gold Teeth are Beautiful on Their Own Terms." It slaps. Check it out.
Saidu: So my friend Jasmine is an actor, writer and community organizer. And this year I found out she's really good at something else too. Jasmine's been nannying for super rich parents all around New York. And when I say rich, I mean the kind of people who put Apple products in the gift bags at their children's birthday parties rich. Real Succession shit.
Saidu: Jasmine's been nannying for the wealthy for the past 15 years. And she tells me basically it's what I imagine it to be. Like this one day, she pulled up to a home in the Hamptons, and she could overhear the father explaining pretty loudly that he thought Eric Garner got what he deserved. And when shit like this happens, she'll usually speak up about it, then leave. So that's what she did. She addressed it and walked out. But then she told me there was this one time that it wasn't that simple. Six years into her career, she met this one family that seemed really different.
Jasmine: Like, they just always showed up for me, and it was the most, like, full of reciprocity. There was this give and take all the time, and I always had the capacity for more for them because they gave me so much. Like, this was my, like, New York family.
Saidu: They always asked her about her life, how she was doing. They paid her what she asked for and then some. The family had a huge circle of friends from diverse backgrounds, and they even hooked Jasmine up with auditions for her acting career. This one time, Jasmine says, she ran a half marathon, and the family was right there at the finish line: mom, dad, son and daughter. They all came to cheer her on.
Jasmine: I had, like, totally settled in.
Saidu: You'd settled in. You let your gut hang.
Jasmine: Oh, yeah. I was just, like, letting it all just be. Like, they knew me. Like, they really knew me. I didn't even have, like, my white voice on for them anymore.
Saidu: That takes a lot to just be like, "Okay, yeah. Like, you might—you white, but you my n****." Like, you know what I'm saying?
Jasmine: Right! Exactly. And that's literally what it was. Like, I was like, okay, I was at probably—it took me years to be at 80 percent, but by, like, year five, I was 110, like, in. Like, just me, totally myself. And, like, almost forgot that they were capable of having, like, moments that caused me to go "Uh oh."
Saidu: After a couple years, once everyone got nice and comfortable with each other, Jasmine said the family started to reveal themselves. And like any new relationship, it didn't happen all at once. It would be in small moments where they would just let things slip. She says this one day they were all in the kitchen about to order some take-out, and the parents made some really off-color comment about the people who worked at the restaurant.
Jasmine: It was a microaggression, definitely. But it was also—like, it was blatant to me. But I know to them it probably wasn't a big deal, you know? And I remember thinking, like—my heart pounded. I remember being a little stunned, and I didn't say anything. I didn't say anything in the moment. And I remember in my mind trying to justify, like, "Oh, maybe it is because they got upset. Maybe—" I couldn't. I knew. Like, back then I snapped and I was like, "Jasmine, they're white. Like, they're white. They're—yes, they're kind. Yes, they're sweet. Yes, it feels like family. And they're white." And I was like, "God!" And so that was, like, the first moment, and I didn't say anything in that moment and I felt sick.
Saidu: Jasmine finished the work day, went home with this knot in her throat, and tried to make sense of what just happened.
Jasmine: I was dealing with a lot of thoughts in my head. Like, is it fair for me to expect them to be perfect? Like, nobody's perfect. I'm not perfect. I'm learning. Da da da da. You know, all those things.
Saidu: Days, weeks go by. And she knows she needs to say something to this family she's grown to trust, but she doesn't know what exactly to say. Then there was this other moment when something else slipped. She's walking one of the kids home from school one day, the seven year old. And the kid points something out to Jasmine.
Jasmine: We were passing this group of teenagers that just got out of school. And she was like, "Oh, I hate those people." And I was like, "Who?" And she was like, "The Black people." And I was like, "Oh my God!" And she said, "Because they're so loud, and they mess up my walk home." And so then I just—like, I was quiet for a second. Then I just said to her, "You do know that I'm Black?" And she looked shocked. She looked like, "Oh my God!" And, like, she turned pale. And I remember I looked over and I said, "You know that little boy who's sitting on the chair? He actually looks like my brother."
Saidu: Hmm. So you decided you needed to have a conversation with them about this. You needed to push back.
Jasmine: Yeah. It took a long time to have that conversation. And it wasn't until, like, oh, months. And I waited until the moment where it was almost unbearable.
Saidu: That moment came in 2016. Videos and news of police killing Black people were all over the place. The very day Alton Sterling was killed by police, Jasmine went into work, and she says the little boy she looked after kept saying "I'm the police" while pointing a Nerf gun at her.
Jasmine: And he kept pointing it at me the whole day, and I kept telling him to stop and he just didn't. And so at that point, I was like—I just felt like there was this big wound festering and festering and festering in my head, I'm like, "I think if they don't understand why I'm telling him to stop doing this today, I'm gonna lose it." And so she came home and she did tell him to stop and she did discipline him, and then later sent me a text and explained, like, "I do know why that was a problem today, and I'm really, really sorry that he did that. And we're gonna talk to him." And that's when I was like, all right, here's my open door. I'm gonna just say something.
Saidu: She started having conversations with the parents about all the moments that came up before the Nerf gun. She told them that it made her worry about what could be behind it all.
Jasmine: There was a lot of silence. There wasn't much said at first, and then there was like, "I'm gonna think about that."
Saidu: She said they apologized for the Nerf gun moment and the "Black people are too loud" moment pretty quickly—all things their kids had done and said. But when it came to what they had said, that microaggression about those restaurant workers, they had trouble owning up to that. She says it's not like she expected them to never say or do anything wrong, but she didn't expect that they'd put her in a position to have to explain racism, like a diversity and inclusion Mary Poppins.
Saidu: When you started realizing this, you started realizing that even this family, the one that you let it all hang out for was also—had their own issues. Like, how did that color the way you saw your relationship with them? Like, how did you start to see the relationship differently?
Jasmine: I stepped back for sure. I put my gut back in. You know, I dialed back a whole lot. I stopped sharing things the same way. I was more calculated with stuff. I still believe that they genuinely—like, all of that stuff was real. I do think that. I just think it's the complicated nature of befriending white people.
Saidu: She worked for them for a couple more years, but things weren't the same. Jasmine realized that just because they were friendly didn't mean they were family.
Jasmine: I just remember thinking it's a job. Like, it was just a really nice job.
Jasmine: And kind of going back to my basics. Yeah, my basics and my standard, which is when I walk into these houses I remind myself most of the time, like, this a job. No matter now intimate it feels. No matter how much they tell you that you're just like family. No matter how comfortable they try to make you, you are not their family, you are not doing anything but working, and you do not let any guard down. [laughs]
Saidu: Yeah. Yeah.
Jasmine: I used to have this, like, manifesto that I would read to myself before going into these homes.
Jasmine: I did. It's really ridiculous, though.
Saidu: I want to hear it.
Jasmine: All right. Let me see. It was in my notes for a long time. Let me see. "Before Entering." Oh my gosh, this is it.
Saidu: It's called "Before Entering?"
Saidu: That's so dramatic!
Jasmine: Oh, I'm always. Gotta be. Disclaimer: I was being dramatic on purpose because it's funny to me. That is part of my, like—that is one part. Humor and dramatics are part of my practice.
Jasmine: Of daily living.
Saidu: Hey, listen. I won't judge you, Jasmine.
Saidu: I'm not judging.
Jasmine: I'm just saying I'm about to be judged.
Jasmine: So it says "Play 'Lift Every Voice' by Beyoncé in the background as you read this." [laughs]
Jasmine: And I say "I am a lioness. I am a phenomenal woman. I've already found God in myself. I've been loving her fiercely. I'm choosing this. I'm choosing to do this job. My ancestors bled, hung, ran, fought, died, cried, lie, dismembered, disobeyed, rebelled, resisted for me to have the power of choice. I can change my mind at any moment. In this space I am providing gold. I drop it as I walk. My spit is the most ancient, soulful, justified and authentic thing to hit the air in there. I am culture. I am a beast, I am protected and I can leave. This is sometimes about money. This is sometimes about skill. This is about sharing with boundaries—firm boundaries. You cannot touch this. Don't touch my hair. I will be honest. I will stand tall. I will not apologize for being Black. I will remain safe. I will remain kind. I have so much ahead of me. I have so much purpose. I am an empire. I am building. I am thankful for this opportunity to exercise the power of choice, whatever it may be at any moment in any time. I will remember that this is for Jasmine as she walks into white spaces."
Jasmine: That's it.
Saidu: That says it all, Jasmine.
Saidu: Jasmine told me that last month, she happily hung up her umbrella. She's not a nanny anymore. Coming up after the break: my name as a form of resistance? How's it pronounced again? Said? Saidu? Saiedu? Say it the right way, man. Or don't. I don't really care. We'll be right back.
Saidu: So while we were working on this show, the homie Bethel, one of our producers, she wanted to talk to me about this thing, about an act of resistance she thought I was doing. So we got into the studio real quick.
Bethel Habte: All right. What is your name? And how is it really said?
Saidu: My name is Saidu Tejan-Thomas Jr.
Bethel: How's your first name spelled?
Saidu: My first name is spelled S-A-I-D-U. And yeah, people are always thrown off by the "U" when they hear that it's Saidu.
Bethel: Do you understand the confusion?
Saidu: Umm ...
Bethel: Because I've been confused—embarrassingly—like, since the day I met you.
Bethel: I just—I think I even was like, "Why are people spelling it like that?"
Bethel: I think I might have actually put it in a text to you one of the first times we ever texted.
Bethel: Like, "Wait. Your name's Saidu. How do you want me to spell this? Like, how do I even save you in my phone?"
Saidu: I feel like I'm about to get interrogated.
Bethel: Yeah. I want you to unpack it for me because I think you need to for this episode.
Saidu: [laughs] Okay, because ...?
Bethel: Because I said so. [laughs]
Saidu: All right.
Bethel: All right. Just yeah. Take me to the beginning. Like, where does this—here does this all start?
Saidu: Like, when I first came to America, I came here in third grade and I remember, you know, getting up in class and, you know, them asking people to go around and say their names. And then the teacher said it—the teacher said it back. And the way the teacher said it was "Siddhu." So that's what they called me for, like, my entire elementary school. It was Siddhu. And I was like, I didn't really know what to do with that because I was like, "All right, cool. Well ..."
Bethel: It sounds like in Blue's Clues, when they're like ...
Saidu: [laughs] Shut the fuck up! Blue Skidoo, you can too!
Saidu: Oh, gosh.
Bethel: I'm so sorry.
Saidu: No, no, no. No, you're right. I never put that together. Blue Siddu. You can too! [laughs] It kinda sounds like that, That's fucked up! I can't believe you just said that. Anyways ...
Bethel: It's just an observation. It's just an observation.
Saidu: So what I ended up doing was just going by Said, 'cause that's what my mother called me. It was kinda like her nickname for me. And it was also easier for people to pronounce, so that was good. But I left the "U" in the spelling of the name because it still felt true to who I am, you know?
Bethel: You know, I've known a lot of people who deal with this by just Americanizing it. Like, I know a Mikael that goes by Mike.
Bethel: You know, for the white people. I know, like, an Issayas that goes by Isaiah because, like, that's the American version.
Bethel: But, like, you didn't do anything like that. Like, why?
Saidu: I always thought of my time in America—growing up, I always thought of it as temporary. I always thought of it as, like, this is a place I'm going to come and do what I need to do and eventually just go back home because that's where home is. And so my name, the way it's spelled, the way it's actually pronounced, that was always something that I was not, like, going to touch. I was never gonna, like, change the spelling of my name, like, because eventually I'd have to go back home with that name. like, that name is home to me. Like, I'm not going—like, I don't want to abandon the name. I don't want to, like, get rid of it. I just wanted to use it in a way that—use it in a way that was both, like, true to who I am, but also easier for me to move around America, right?
Saidu: Even though I've been here now for basically 20-plus years, there is still a part of me that's like that name is like a beacon home. It's like a beacon to who I am, to who I actually am. Because, you know, for me at least as an immigrant, I've always felt like two people: who I am here and who I am back home. Back home, the way my name is really pronounced—and I'll say it now. The way my name is really pronounced is "Seidu," right? Seidu. That's how my sister calls me. That's how my aunts will call me. I mean, they'll go back and forth. But there's family members who just say "Seidu."
Bethel: And to be clear, like, that isn't even how it's actually said. It's like the way that it comes out of their mouth makes it sound right.
Saidu: Yes, the way it comes out of their mouth is, like, beautiful. Like, it sounds—it has the accent, has the correct level of, like, everything. I haven't even really ever dissected what it is that makes it sound so true. But it sounds better when they say it. When I say it, I sound like an American saying it. I sound like—yeah, I think I sound a little Sierra Leonean saying it, but there's, like, definitely some American overtones to it. And, like, I just don't like that. And so I was never interested in training people here in how to say my name the right way. I was never interested in that.
Saidu: Because I like it being a gift. I like it being like a special thing only the people in my family know how to say. I like saving it for them and preserving it for them.
Saidu: The real name is not for other people, it's not for people in America, it's for people back home, and it's for my family. And ...
Bethel: And you're not gonna let that go just for their convenience.
Saidu: No. And I'm not gonna teach—I'm not gonna, like, sit here and lecture somebody about how to say it. Like, if you can't say it, you can't say it. Cool. Like, let's keep it pushing. Like, it's not—it's really not a class I'm about to do for you. I really wish I didn't have to do any of this. [laugh] Like, whenever I go back home and people say my name right, I feel so much like myself. Like, I feel, like, a hundred percent myself. I don't feel like I'm part of two worlds. I feel whole. I wish people could just pronounce my name the way it was supposed to be said, and it was never a thing in the first place.
Saidu: So I could hear my name said back to me all the time the right way, so I could feel more of myself, even here in this country, you know?
Bethel: Yeah. I know you kind of deal with that every day, that feeling that you're not home.
Bethel: But it is really special that, you know, we lose a lot of ourselves, of our culture, when we come to America. But you still always have this piece of home that you, like, walk around with that you know it's for the people it's for.
Bethel: It's not for anybody else.
Saidu: Yeah. Yeah, and to be clear, like, people who do fight for their names to be pronounced correctly, like, I think that's valid too. I mean, you know what I'm saying? Like, fight the good fight. But for me, I mean, I just don't have the energy, for one. But also, I don't need someone else to say my name right for me to know who I am, you know? I got people for that. Just spell it right on the check. It will be good. [laughs]
Saidu: So we started this episode talking about small acts of resistance, and I was talking to one of my mentors, Dominique Christina, who basically walked that idea out a little bit more for me. She reminded that small is relative. What seems like a small act to one person can be a huge thing to somebody else. I got Dominique in the studio to talk about this with me.
Saidu: What's up? How you doing?
Dominique Christina: I'm good! How are you?
Saidu: I'm good.
Dominique Christina: Mm-hmm.
Saidu: Looking good, as always.
Dominique Christina: Thanks, man. So do you.
Saidu: [laughs] Thank you. This is energizing for me. I always love talking to you.
Dominique Christina: I love talking to you too.
Saidu: And I'm glad we finally getting to do this.
Saidu: I've always looked up to Dominique. Whenever we chop it up, she's dropping gems on me left and right. She's wise as hell. And when we spoke this time around, she told me she wasn't always this way. She had to learn a lot of that wisdom from one of her favorite people: her grandfather.
Dominique Christina: His name is Byron Waldo Emerson Johnson. He was named after two poets: Lord Byron and Ralph Waldo Emerson. He was the youngest of nine children.
Dominique Christina: I remember his hands, and I remember what it felt like to hold—you know, to hold his hand. I remember what it felt like to be picked up by him, to be shielded from something by those hands.
Saidu: Dominique's grandfather and most of her family grew up in the Jim Crow South. She describes them as really sharp people who were strategic in their survival. They focused on getting an education and doing all the hard, diligent work they could to make it during that time. But Dominique didn't quite fit in with that strategy. She was born too loud, and way too willing to throw hands at the first sign of disrespect. It always felt like her family's commitment to non-violence was nowhere to be found in her DNA. She says she was like this from the time she was little; always had a chip on her shoulder. And when she went away to college it just got worse.
Dominique Christina: We reading bell hooks and Cornel West and John Henrik Clarke and Before The Mayflower. I'm digging in the crates on some shit and I'm feeling—feeling like I understand what needs to happen, I'm feeling like I can help Black folks move out of their docility, out of their—you know? Like, I thought that I understood what the prescription was and how Black folks needed to show up in the world in order to be free.
Saidu: What is it about college that does that to us?
Dominique Christina: I don't know. It's so corny.
Dominique Christina: It's so stupid. It is. It's so stupid.
Saidu: Dominique came back home from college fresh off her bell hooks and Cornel West, ready to burn shit to the ground. And she decides she's gonna share some of this newfound knowledge with her grandfather.
Dominique Christina: And I'm talking to my grandfather about what Black folks need to be doing, or what we ought to be doing. And, you know, sellouts and on and on. And I'm giving it to him. I'm going off, you know what I'm saying? I'm pacing, and I'm gesturing wildly. And he's, you know, being himself. He's looking at me over his glasses, you know, fairly amused. And he just said, "Okay, I hear you. And you get to feel all of that from here. But where would you have been on the plantation?" So I don't understand the question when he asks, because I don't know what he means. I don't know if he's asking me something rooted in colorism. Are you asking me something about house Negro versus field Negro stuff? IS that what you're doing? Or—what are you asking me, you know? And he said, "You know, the enslaved person, born in the context of slavery—" my grandfather said, "You know how radical an act it was for them to just even try on the idea of liberty? Just to imagine that maybe liberty could belong to them, too. Just that thought: how radical it would be for the person born in the context of slavery to just get their brain to generate that thought is radical."
Dominique Christina: What do you mean? Liberty does not belong to me. There is nothing about my experience that suggests that it does. The context in which I was born: Negroes are in chains.
Dominique Christina: Why would I dream myself out of them? That's not a template that I've inherited. So it's radical to just imagine that, is what he was saying. But you wouldn't see it that way because you need them leaping over the fence and, you know, hiding in the woods and evading the dogs and making it over the river.
Saidu: Leaving with Harriet Tubman.
Dominique Christina: Yeah. Yeah. The enslaved person that manages to just walk to the gate and consider what is on the other side. In the context of slavery, that is a radical act. But so is the enslaved person in the kitchen who is not thinking about running, and she has never considered running. But she does spit in master's food every day. She spits in it every day.
Saidu: A big old loogie.
Dominique Christina: And watches him eat it. And feels like she won something, or at least she didn't lose nothing. That context mattered a lot. Because that resistance movement in the kitchen goes unnoticed.
Dominique Christina: Everybody can't be Cinqué. It can't all be the Amistad.
Dominique Christina: It can't all be burning all the time. I didn't have that context, and I did not understand that.
Dominique Christina: And the more you dig and the more you interrogate, you realize how, in fact, tectonic it is for somebody to do those quiet things, things like staying in your body.
Dominique Christina: You know?
Saidu: Yeah. And for you, after your grandfather told you—after your grandfather told you this story and broke it down for you, what did you see in the world after he told you this? How did you start seeing the world differently?
Dominique Christina: That there are radical acts happening all around us all the time. And through us all the time. But we are conditioned to look for the things that are dynamic and loud and measurable, you know? It's marches, protests, pickets, demonstrations, road blocks, you know? Things we can see. We need to be able to see it and hear it and, you know, record it, to count it as significant. And what I learned is that it's the stuff underneath those things. It's the stuff, those foundational stones are made up of a trillion resistance movements with no names attached that allow you to hashtag and picket and protest and march and rage.
Dominique Christina: You know? The foundational stones on which we're standing when we cussin' cops out or whatever?
Dominique Christina: That was built from something quiet that somebody before us did, a space they were willing to hold, willing to live through something that no one should be able to live through.
Saidu: Dominique says her grandfather was savvy and smart. He didn't always have the privilege to speak his mind, but that strategy for surviving in the Jim Crow South, it worked. It worked long enough for Dominique to exist.
Dominique Christina: My grandfather before he died, said "Live if you have to, live with your head in the lion's mouth. If the alternative is to do it like I did, don't do that. Say it all now, sugar." That's what he said. "Say it all now." So I've been doing that ever since. I'mma say it all.
Saidu: Dominique's grandfather, Byron Waldo Emerson Johnson—the man named for two poets—died in 2005. A few years later, his granddaughter would win five national poetry competitions. So of course, I had to ask Dominique if she could write a poem for us. And of course, she wrote about her grandfather.
Saidu: Does the poem have a name?
Dominique Christina: Yeah.
Saidu: What's it called?
Dominique Christina: You want to know it?
Saidu: I would love to know it.
Dominique Christina: Yeah. It's called "Tusks."
Dominique Christina: Yeah, Tusks." Mm-hmm. It's for my grandfather.
Dominique Christina: Byron Waldo Emerson Johnson. Yeah. You ready?
Saidu: I'm ready.
Dominique Christina: Okay.
Dominique Christina: "My grandfather was right.
Resistance ain't no stage performance
No curtain call
Got heroes though ...
They're not all coming in hot
On white horses, loud and obvious- but
The story got heroes
My grandfather being one ...
Let me start over.
The word resistance
Takes you to the 14th century
A French word by birth that means
To withstand To oppose To hold out against
We don't recognize these things
Unless something's on fire-
Chapter one: to hold out against.
Poaching began in the 16th century
But yesterday I read an article about
Elephants being born without tusks-
Cuz evolution is the process of radical change
In the interest of one's own survival.
Sometimes grow gills
Sometimes shed 'em
You gon' be somebody's meal
Til you figure how to look like something
Poisonous to your predator
Til you figure out camouflage
Now you can mimic a mountain
Maybe to hunt
Maybe to hide from what's hunting you
Maybe you're a carnivore now
Used to be vegan
Til the fruit got scarce-
Who you are changes when you're starving, when you're hunted.
That's the point.
Elephants been killed for their tusks since before Columbus
So they ain't making 'em no more
Took 'em 400 years to communicate
This new need and get the body to agree-
So now ya'll got to get your ivory some other way
I'm talking about changing DNA to survive what
Would otherwise make you extinct.
That's evolution. And evolution is resistance.
Devin's mama was addicted to cocaine when she was pregnant with him and his twin brother
In New York.
No help. No rescue missions. No interventions.
Colonized by an unblessed hunger she
Got those babies here. She did that shit. A year later
A different black mother living in the same building,
Jumped off the roof with her twins-
I'm saying: it's hard to get folks here and
It's hard to keep folk here
It's an every day miracle
So we forget to be astonished-
I'm saying to stay in the body and allow it to be impossible is resistance.
Chapter three: hold out against.
Like how my mama was diagnosed with MS and talked it down
Chose to commandeer her body differently
She is assembled from whatever allows you to make that choice.
Her little brother Joe was diagnosed with lupus the same year
He was 14 years old when he died
His body could not oppose the diagnosis.
My mama's body could.
She somehow resisted extinction
So now I got a body that does whatever I say.
I get it from my mama.
But really it's 1927, and John Carter has just been lynched in Little Rock, Arkansas.
My grandfather is 15 years old.
They found a white girl dead four days earlier, see? And
Somebody had to pay for that-
So 5000 (white) folk went hunting
Found John Carter outside Little Rock
Pistol whipped/dragged/beaten/and shot
They drove him through the city strapped to the hood of a car
They hung him from a light pole and
Set him on fire/ they broke into Bethel AME Church and stole
The pews my grandfather sat on with Papa Joe and his brothers every Sunday
They set John Carter on fire, riddled his body with bullets
Burned the stolen pews to keep the fire going
Somebody said they took body parts for souvenirs
A man was directing traffic with John Carter's severed arm
My grandfather walked to work the next day scalpled against the horrors of the night before
Soot and ash complicated the sky from all the black businesses still smoldering
Police picked up a boy on Main Street for selling pictures of John Carter's for 15 cent a copy
My grandfather worked at a market
Owned by an white couple who hired him
To be an errand boy.
His first chore was to
Cut the binding away from the newspapers delivered that
Morning and carry them into the store
On the cover of the Arkansas Gazette that day, though
The lynching photo of John Carter
Body mutilated and scorched,
Stiff with smoke, swollen, distended ... gone. And
Under that hanging body
Posing for the picture with bludgeoning confidence
Was the couple my grandfather worked for
The ones whose store he stood in front of,
The store he was supposed to walk into
His eyes stinging from the smoke in the air
The smell of burning flesh still stuck to things
And he's standing there
Stitching it up
Burying the unlanguageable hurt and
Rage, a heavy hex, all riot and regret
Guttural and unborn howling on the inside
A spell or something like it
Stuffed behind his ribs
Blood-stitched boy, always a tourniquet
Managed a "Morning ma'am." And a few "Yes sirs."
And stayed in his body all day all day
This is where I remind you about the meaning of resistance
To oppose, to withstand, to hold out ...
Which is to say I'm assembled from the battalion(ed) heart
Of a 15-year-old boy in Little Rock in 1927
Whose ability to hold out and withstand is the reason I am alive
It's ontological really
What does your eco system require of you?
A quality education or a mean right hook?
What have you developed or abandoned to avoid extinction?
Either choice is a choice
Maybe an acre of scattered bone is your inheritance
You making walking sticks or weapons?
The community probably needs both.
Sometimes that's the tension.
I'm saying extinction destroys a lineage.
And lineage is a tether.
A sacred rope
A cowrie shell
A djembe drum
A turtle shell rattle
A pictograph etched in stone
Hieroglyphs that result in a full ride scholarship
Cuz stories carved in rock deserve to be studied and
You want to be an anthropologist
Some folk died before the story was passed on.
Some mass graves are underwater
Some mass graves are the water…
Let the Atlantic say Ase'
I got at least one super hero in my blood.
I know that because, I, though Middle Passage(d), exist.
Cuz Grandma Danny didn't die when she was stolen from Guinea at the age of 14.
She must've been willing her body in the dark
Toward a discussion about what could be grown and what should die
In the preservation of lineage-
Cuz surviving the unsurvivable in resistance.
Or maybe I'm talking about Freddie Gray
When he was murdered by Baltimore Police and
School children fell into the street and
The CVS burned and cop cars did too and
SWAT teams with assault rifles
Were standing on rooftops, and
All the major networks were staged on the sidewalk and
Activists had flown in and curfews were set, and
In the thick of it all, 3 black boys playing basketball on an outdoor court
Laughing and talking shit, astonishingly free
Because laughter is a lineage too
Because joy is resistance when armed men are on the roof
A pick-up game in spite of, is a movement
When the guns are supposed to be the story-
That is defiance. No hashtag for it.
The stay-and-make-music-anyway gene
That walk-on-water shit,
The anthropomorphic evidence of Jesus is how we flex these miracles-
The ones that formed us in the bowels of ships and
Sugarcane and cotton fields and killing fields,
Through famine, disease and war ...
Surviving the un-survivable is resistance
Sometimes it's quiet ... that kind of summoning
It's not a CVS burning
It's what you grow in the dark
The prayers you remember when everything's on fire
The pronunciation of your name
A knife in one hand, sage in the other ...
It's a 15-year-old boy named after two poets
And that boy made it possible
For you to exist by suturing his sadness,
Though his city was burning, when he walked
with his head up,
Saidu: That was Dominique Christina.
Saidu: This is our last episode of the year, y'all. It's been a great year, and I'm really proud of what we've been able to accomplish together on this show. Thank you so much for showing up for us.
Saidu: I just want to take a second real quick to thank the awesome team that makes every single episode of this show possible. We started making this show in the middle of a pandemic, and we cranked out 23 episodes of deeply reported, deeply personal stories. We took you to the middle of protests, to the middle of small town Nebraska, and even made a couple stops in Africa, which was hella dope. And like, goddamn, we really did that. I'm really proud of us, and I'm really thankful for all the support that you've shown us throughout this last year. Thankful for all the support you've shown me, personally.
Saidu: Somebody asked me recently if I feel like I've said everything I have to say about the last year and a half, and I think I realized that I have. And so I need to take a couple months to figure out what else I wanna say about resistance. I wanna bring you something that feels new and exciting, with the same fresh perspective that you're used to getting on this show.
Saidu: My hope has always been that we can make people consider what resistance looks like in their own lives, and I hope that we accomplished that too. Until next time, thank you so much for listening, and be safe y'all. I'll see you at some point in the new year.
Saidu: All right. Now it's time for the credits. Resistance is produced by Bethel Habte, Aaron Randle, Salifu Sesay Mack, and hosted by me, Saidu—with a U—Tejan-Thomas Jr.
Saidu: Our supervising producer is Sarah McVeigh. Sarah, thank you so much. I love you so much, homie. None of this—none of this would be possible without you.
Saidu: We were edited by Lynn Levy, Brendan Klinkenberg, Lydia Polgreen and WJ Sunday. Mixing, scoring and magic by Haley Shaw. Additional scoring by Bobby Lord and Catherine Anderson. Theme by Bobby Lord. Our music supervisor is Liz Fulton. Original compositions by Drea the Vibe Dealer and Teiji Mack. Fact checking is by Rosemarie Ho. Our show art is by Darien Birks of The Stuyvesants.
Saidu: Credits music—what you're listening to right now is "Love Again," by Ta-ku, featuring JMSN and Sango. Special thanks to Jonah Delso, Rachel Strom and DNA Picasso. Good lookin', homie. And Chase's mom Salina Turley. Thanks also to Jenisha Watts and Anna Bross from The Atlantic. Julian's piece about gold teeth was originally reported in The Atlantic's Inheritance Project.
Saidu: And thank you to all the people who sent in voice memos. We really appreciate you. It went a long way in making this episode possible.
Saidu: Resistance is a Spotify original podcast and Gimlet production. All right. See y'all soon.