It's On Us by Jahan Sharif

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Lightning flickers in the distance, lighting up the sky like a shock of grey in an old man’s afro. The monitor tells me that the constellation of stars I’m trying to place is called Wichita, Kansas. Who chooses to live in Wichita? I think to myself. The Koch Brothers, I remember. I wonder what that’s like.

I refocus my attention on the passing storm, it’s huge. It’s well past midnight, and I’m tired, but I feel like there’s a metaphor here-- somewhere in the clouds. I’m searching for it, but I don’t find it. I look at the storm again, its expanse practically swallowing this state’s largest city. I close one eye, and try to pinch the city away between my fingers. I almost do. Lightning strikes again, almost cuing the hum of the engines to intensify as we climb. “Your Coke, brother.” 

The flight attendant is standing in the aisle holding my beverage over my seat-mate. “Thanks.” I reply. “What would you like for dinner?” he asks. “I’ll have the noodles.” I say, taking a sip of my drink. The tall, Black flight attendant, with his dreads pulled back into a neat pony, hands me a small container of soba noodles with chicken breast. “Enjoy.” 

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I fumble with the seal, trying to find a graceful way in. I turn it around, and notice the outside flap says, “It’s on us.” I pause for a moment to think about what exactly they mean by it’s on us? I’m in a coach seat two rows behind first class. And the only difference between my coach seat and the ones 20 rows behind me (aside from mine being double the price-- I didn’t pay for it) is early boarding, this “free” dinner, and a few extra inches of knee room. Meanwhile, the seats in first class look like international business class suites. 

Words are powerful, because they are the tools of manipulation and persuasion. Remember when a “flight upgrade” meant you were being “bumped up” to “first class”? Your loyalty to the airline, rewarded with some time spent in that upper class lifestyle. At least in those days, you legitimately did get a different experience. Today, airlines are still giving out “upgrades” to Comfort+, but what do you get? Free food and overhead bin access. And we take it with a smile, because at least we’re not in the “main cabin”. 

Paying more for what we used to get for free is a scam; even if we might feel like it’s a good value. And we’re getting scammed everywhere. “Think tanks” dupe us into believing whatever is in their benefactors’ best interests, and then those same capitalists exploit our ignorance for profit. 

Our lackadaisical and egotistical thinking is lubricating our self-destruction. And we will continue to be powerless in any effort to combat this exploitation if we remain ignorant to our own contributions to the problems. 

The irony is that they told us exactly where the responsibility for change lies. They wrote it right on their packaging: It’s On Us.

The skies over Wichita, KS, USA
August 2019

Kuyasa by Jahan Sharif

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I notice a flower petal, pinked by the hour, slipping through the soft weight of the morning air, coming gently to rest on a bedewed blade of grass near the side of the road. The grass flexes, adjusting to this new weight. A car passes, and the flower flits off like a butterfly. The blade twitches straight, then stills.

At this hour, the sun has just begun to rise, heaving its coiled charge of possibility over the horizon, and signaling with those first few photons that what has not yet come, will soon arrive. I learned a Xhosa word from a shopkeeper in South Africa a few years ago that describes this time of day: Kuyasa-- it is the light before the dawn.

“Pay attention.” She said, “The day is coming.”

(Happy 6 months of Jaja!)

Los Angeles, California
August 2019

Seattle's Underground Railroad by Jahan Sharif

Seattle at dusk

Seattle at dusk

Seattle is what I imagine happens when you put white intellectuals, composting, unlimited money, and nature into the same place. If you fall into one of those buckets, life can be pretty good here. If you don’t, things can be a bit trickier-- at least for me it was.

I don’t live in Seattle, but I still felt “the Seattle Freeze.” The Seattle Freeze is how outsiders and transplants describe the experience of making friends in this city. It’s the feeling you get when you know that no matter how close you might feel to this person, you’re probably never getting a dinner or party invitation. It’s Drake singing “No New Friends,” but to the extreme.

I described this experience to a new friend, Annette, last week over steamed soup dumplings and fried pork buns in Seattle’s International District— formerly known as Chinatown. As I ranted about my confusion, she nodded with a knowing, but empathic, smile. Finally, I relented; and in a soothing tone, she said something like, “You’re not crazy. What you’re feeling is actually happening.”

Anette is an archivist working to collect, preserve, and share Seattle’s rich Asian history by documenting and contextualizing oral histories. It’s a fascinating and hugely important project. She’s been doing this work since returning to Seattle about 11 years ago, after being away for about as long to study and teach.

Anette is a third-generation Seattleite, but apparently that didn’t make it any easier for her to find a Seattle tribe when she moved back.

“I had basically the same experience when I moved back.” She told me, “Except it’s worse, because… you know… I grew up here! I’m supposed to already know what to do!”

Through her archival work, Anette connected with one of the historical societies, and there she found her vibrant community. In hearing how Anette found her people, I remembered an experience from that morning:

Before lunch, I visited Efrem at his coffeeshop, Boon Boona, outside of Seattle. (You might remember that I interviewed Efrem for my eighth post: Coffee, Culture, and Nipsey Hussle — Building Community Through Entrepreneurship.) I arrived around 10am and the place was packed; and, apparently it had been so from the moment they opened. As I scanned the room, I noticed something remarkable: There were hardly any white people!

It seemed like practically every POC was represented, with maybe 2 white people in the whole place. This is the first time I’d ever seen something like this in Seattle— and frankly, I couldn’t stop staring!

I figured I’d try to explore my observation with the barista. I made small talk with her by asking about her shirt? It said “Honor Indigenous Lands. Kill the Black Snake.” She said that she bought it from the owners of another POC owned coffee shop that was raising funds for an educational program that would be about the history of land that they were on. She also recommended I check them out, because “they’re great peeps and we’ve got to support them.”

I relayed the story to Efrem and he co-signed it, and then added, “Did you notice that we serve beer now? It’s from a local brewery nearby— they’re part of the fam too, you know?” I certainly did know.

As I was telling Anette this story, a comparison to the Underground Railroad popped into my head. Finding community as a non-white person was kind of like traveling the Underground Railroad ONLY (<— did you see that? ONLY.) in the sense that you needed to know where the safe houses were in order to get to where you were going. For enslaved people it was to the North, for POC Seattleites it was finding other POC Seattleites!

Boon Boona, like the community of preservationists, is a metaphorical safe house. They attract people who value these connections, and they know where the other metaphorical safe houses are. Through this informal network-- this community-- history is preserved, culture is transferred, values are reinforced, and knowledge is spread. Anette agreed. She added that it’s easy to forget that people existed in this city, and on this land, for a long time before Microsoft and Amazon showed up. And they didn’t last this long by accident. However, if we-- the current beneficiaries of their efforts-- don’t do the work to record and teach it, this history will be suppressed, or even erased. And that is the true danger.

Seattle is as strange a place as any other. But this trip, I was able to see it with a new lens, and, thanks to Anette, her fellow preservationists, Efrem, and Boon Boona I received a new lesson: Don’t let whatever’s happening now, erase what came before. Every thing, every place, and every person has a backstory. And to understand why they’re here and where they’re trying to go, you have to also understand where they came from.

Or as Baldwin (who borrowed from Shakespeare said), “Know from whence you came. If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.”

Seattle, WA, USA
July 2019

Summer in the City: A Sunday Morning with Jaja by Jahan Sharif

Photo by, Ghazal Sheei on 35mm film in natural light.

Photo by, Ghazal Sheei on 35mm film in natural light.

It's summer in LA and that means a few things: Heat waves, evening concerts, and farmers markets!

Ok, ok... it's true, farmers markets happen year round, but their selection changes with what's in season. This week, I'm sharing a little video I made this time last year where I went around my neighborhood to run some typical Sunday errands, including shopping for oranges at my neighborhood farmers market! 

Happy viewing, and I hope you're enjoying summer wherever this finds you today!

Los Angeles, CA, USA
July 2019

How to Restore the Values of America -- Larry Campbell, Part 2 by Jahan Sharif

"There comes a time when silence is betrayal." -- Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Each day we allow injustices to go unacknowledged and unaddressed, is another day that we violate the morality of humanity.

In this, Part 2, of my interview with Larry Campbell, he explains how he built Corners Outreach into a million-dollar vehicle that fights against exploitation, empowers us with the tools to make a difference, and then challenges us to put that awareness into action.

Los Angeles, CA, USA
July 2019