A million black breaths reclaimed

I started this piece as a tribute to the luminescent brothers whose lives were stolen in Minnesota: Philando Castile and George Floyd. It has morphed into a reflection on the battle for black lives and black breaths, that I’ve witnessed since childhood, and on one’s political formation within the colonized communities of the US empire… crumbling.

There’s an infinite cosmic safe space for brothers who dare shine smiles of love, even while hated and hunted. Brothers taken from their communities well before they are able to fulfill their mission here. Spirit missions cut short by cowards, afraid, insecure, who only feel good about themselves when subscribing to the myth that lighter skin and a badge renders them supreme over another being. Another heart. Another spirit.
Spirits who happen to be on Earth, but are cosmic really. Vast and infinite.
We must remember this.
It protects us from the “sunken place” of smallness they want us falling in.

Belief in the continuity of spirit is part of my own strategy to shield myself from the sunken place. Art is another huge strategy. I create portraits of our ancestors as nebulas, visual metaphor that comes to mind while meditating on the fluid energy and love light of spirits. Red, Black and Green. Colors of black liberation, colors of the root and heart chakras. Colors of warrior orishas Eshu and Ogun who protect, defend, open doors and paths. I also paint incarnate spirits in these same colors, the colors of fireflies with their yellow-outlined wings.  Metaphor for us, the oppressed, the hunted. Pushed to the margins, robbed of resources, forced to harness our own light.

“Philando Castile Nebula” and “George Floyd Nebula”, 2020,  Yasmin Hernandez Art. Color Pencil on black paper. 12 x 9 in.

This blog post is long overdue. I moved in the last weeks. Still rummaging through boxes to find things. Studio still piled high in boxes and bins. Unpacking has been paused as we prepped for this first storm of this first hurricane season in this house. As I post this, thousands are cleaning up their flooded homes from raging rivers reminding us that nature is the one in charge. I cannot paint in this time, but found my pad of black paper and color pencils. I started using black backgrounds more following the darkness of Hurricane Maria. It made sense to begin creating from the space of darkness we mostly inhabit. Instead of rendering shadows, you draw light. It is an exercise in seeing with ones eyes, but also the eyes of the spirit navigating the blackness and light of the cosmos. I created this portrait of Philando Castile, similar to the one I created of George Floyd for Juneteenth. I wanted to share these together with the poems that I read when Magdalena Gomez generously offered me a spot on her Jazz Ready Podcast. I pulled out the piece below that I had written for Philando Castile weeks after he was killed in 2016, then wrote a follow up piece reflecting on Floyd and the planet in these pandemic times of racism, violence, contagion.


“Shine Your Light” (Central Park 5/ Exonerated 5), 2019, Yasmin Hernandez Art, Acrylic on canvas, 36″ x 48″. Words by Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) from the song “Umi Says”

Why on this blog, Rematriating Borikén?
Because like many of our confined ancestors, and artists of recent decades navigating the continued racism of the US empire, I dreamed of leaving Babylon.
Because I was born and raised in an African American and Puerto Rican East New York, Brooklyn, not too far from the Howard Beach site of the 1986 killing of Michael Griffith. I was 11. In 1989, Yusef Hawkins, also from East New York, was killed by a mob of white youth “wilding” in Bensonhurst. But you

“Louder Than a Bomb” (Soul Rebels: Public Enemy), 2005, Yasmin Hernandez Art, Mixed media on masonite, 76″ x 19″

wouldn’t hear this term applied to the white mobs that chased both young men, the young men they were with and so many others. This term was mostly used to describe a group of black and brown boys in Central Park. Korey Wise, Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson and Anton McCray were arrested and wrongfully convicted for the rape of a white woman. They came to be known as the Central Park Five.  Thankfully today they are the Exonerated Five.

Kevin and Raymond were 14 years old when arrested. That summer, I graduated IS 302 in East New York and turned 14 too. The other boys were 15 and Korey, the oldest, was 16. As I was getting ready to start high school, they were sent to prison. Also that summer, Spike Lee released his groundbreaking film Do the Right Thing and Public Enemy’s Fight the Power was always playing on my brother’s radio. The video was filmed in Bed Stuy, not far from where we attended block parties outside my Aunt and Uncle’s brownstone.

The list of racist violence incidents, before and since, goes on and on. But rematriating to Puerto Rico in 2014, watching riots from afar in Charlottesville and Ferguson, learning about Sandra Bland and so many others, continued carving this deep grief in me that I’ve carried since childhood. Watching the racism of the US grow more and more overt as the world watched, solidified my belief that “Babylon is falling.”

“Sandra Bland”, Yasmin Hernandez Art, 2016, Acrylic on burlap, 12″ x 12″.

I continue observing all from a colony of the US, opposing its continued racism and imperialism. The formation of my beliefs around liberation didn’t begin in history books or TV, and the Internet did not exist. They began as a child, living the disparities in black and brown communities in the belly of the beast. They developed in my father’s car with his teachings on the Puerto Rican liberation struggle. In my Brooklyn upbringing, no matter what was told to me, I saw the plight of Puerto Ricans and African Americans in the US as one. As a teen learning more, this awareness expanded to understand these and Indigenous communities as three colonized nations within the US empire.

When I arrived at Cornell University at 17, I did so with this understanding already in place. Living at Ujamaa Residential College and Akwe:kon, the American Indian Program House, and taking Africana and American Indian Studies courses to supplement this self-education that began at home and in the streets. A continuum of my upbringing and my already unfolding liberation practice. Just as my portraits of Philando Castile and George Floyd are a continuum of a decades-long creative practice centered on liberation.

This is neither my first nor my last post on the matter of black lives and the inevitable fall of Babylon. Though the US swears supremacy over all, racism and domination are not tenets of intelligence and history has shown that all empires fall. These are reflections on the lives, murders and societal response, or lack thereof, of two brothers in a long, tragic scroll of names of black lives taken. Nothing more shameful than a country that boasts its greatness everywhere while mercilessly slaughtering souls.

Two poems for Minnesota Luminescent Brothers
Philando Castile (born July 16, 1983 – killed by Minnesota cop July 6, 2016) and
George Floyd (born October 14, 1973-killed May 25th, 2020 by Minnesota Cop)

For Philando Castile (August 23, 2016)

Social media pressure rising
Time ticks at speeds we were not programmed for

The send button makes no provisions
For stage fright
Writers block
Nor life intercepted

El periodico de ayer
has devolved into 5-minute-old news
pushed way down on your newsfeed
By photos of dancing puppies
Images of what people cooked
Check-ins at the gym
at the bar
Selfies in the car
and with bathroom stall backdrops

Memes of a baby brutalized in war
Laments over the latest police victim
Another live video
will broadcast another brother being chased
Shot down, Pinned down
Clinging to consciousness
Battling for breaths
Evidence in a desperate attempt for justice

Struggle for survival gone viral
Mass-produced and mass-consumed
for all his loved ones to see
over and over

His flesh, his blood,
A mother, a lover, a daughter
Were never programmed for such callous, cyber loveless-ness

Millions will stare
Rage and share
Then forget
Before remembering
to snapchat a puppy nose and bunny ears
Over their numb faces
Uploaded as their new profile pic
in one second flat

For George Floyd (June 2, 2020)

No cyber star/ heart/ fairy dust filter
Sprinkled over our device screens
Could mask decrepit societal shadows
This season of eclipses

The corporate capitalist construct
of social media has been hijacked
Reemerged in quarantine
As conduit for cybernetic love
Redistribution of wellness resources
Work and movement
Meditations and prayer
Gone virtual
As we dispersed
Stayed in place
Cybernetic preparation
for the worse
And the worse is yet to come

Worse is what you feel
With your baby’s head
locked between your legs
The final stretch is the worse stretch
When you must take back
All those stolen breaths
Breaths to breathe,
Breathe your baby down
Through fear
Through pain
Through a burning ring of fire
So it emerges as phoenix flying
past the weight of injustice
Past ancestral trauma of those bound
And those binding
because they too were bound

Cease believing in their freedom
Those who enslave and contain
To force others
into their same plight
of spiritual enslavement

Release from your body
All that you’ve had trapped
All that must emerge from the fire
Like liberation trees sprouting from volcanic ash

She has long shaken the soil
Hurled enough hurricanes
Flooded enough fields
Burned enough fires
To wake us to the reality
That we were never meant to live this way

The veil of fantasy
Of black and brown star athletes
Corporate moguls and celebrities
Lulled us into thinking
We had overcome
Numbed our babies
Into living vicariously
Through life on TV
Never taking joy
As our responsibility
Our priority
While more brothers
Were smothered dead in the streets

The empire was not, is not and cannot be free
Even after the emancipation of slavery
Because it still holds colonies
Still confines the original keepers of these lands
to reservations
Still keeps children locked in cages
Still builds its institutions,
Its economies and education
on racism

We are still believing they are the Gods that came with Columbus
If we think freedom
Is for the giving, the taking, the enforcing
We arrive on this planet free
But are socialized into mental captivity
The free will of our spirits repressed

They never were who they said
The antithesis to freedom instead
Only those afraid
are capable of spreading fear
Only those who love
Can know freedom

Grown men evoke their mothers
At the moment of death
Mothers who stand above
The bodies they birthed
With outstretched hands
To guide them back
To the ancestors that brought them
Black mothers, more than any others
Have delivered more babies back to their source
They know this is not an ending
But a beginning

Evoke the mothers and grandmothers
Release all you must from your body
With yourself as midwife
With spirit as doula

Birth all the visions
of justice
of peace
of liberation
of love
From your spirit
From your flesh

Birth these into existence
With the wind force
Of one million stolen
Black breaths

Philando Castile was pulled over and within 40 seconds of the police officer approaching his car was shot. Castile had tried to responsibly inform him that he had a firearm. The officer responded by shooting him several times at close range, with two bullets piercing his heart.
George Floyd was pinned face down by a cop who pressed his knee to the back of his neck, cutting his air supply and causing him to suffocate. Something about trying to change a check and an alleged counterfeit $20 bill. Don’t know exactly and don’t care because I know no $20 bill is worth taking a life over.

Both incidents occurred in Minnesota. Both deaths were captured on videos that continue to circulate on social media. Though I reference my opposition to the circulation of such videos and have yet to see either video, it was the bravery of Diamond Reynolds, Castile’s girlfriend, and Darnella Frazier, the teenage girl who captured Floyd’s death, that resulted in these videos existing as evidence to get the attention of the public. In the case of Philando Castile, Reynold’s four-year old daughter was in the back seat and was subjected to the horrific scene. Still neither video seemed to get the men the justice they deserved. The cop that shot Castile was acquitted and a good amount of time lapsed in George Floyd’s case before an arrest was even made. So basically black people in the US don’t even have the freedom to grab, to hold and love up on their slain loved ones. They have to act like detectives to capture evidence for the long, oftentimes hopeless, journey towards justice.

I first learned of George Floyd by Boricua Minnesota artist Maria Isa who performed at and frequented Conga Latin Bistro, an establishment where he worked security and developed a relationship with many of the musicians and regulars there. She immediately posted to social media speaking of her sadness and of the light and kindness he offered her and their community. Philando Castile worked as a manager of a school cafeteria. He was known to have paid for the school lunches of poor children whose families couldn’t afford to pay. Last year his mother paid an $8,000 school lunch debt in her son’s honor, claiming that no family or child should have to carry a debt for school lunches.

Justice for all the stolen breaths. Justice for Breonna Taylor…

Brooklyn-born and raised, Yasmín Hernández rematriated to her ancestral homeland of Borikén in 2014.  For over two decades, her creative practice has been centered on this land, its suppressed histories, healing and liberation practices. She shares her art at  yasminhernandezart.com.

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