By Lindsay Airey
This piece was developed during the second Bartimaeus Institute Online (BIO) Study Cohort 2016-2017. These pieces will eventually be published in a Women’s Breviary collection. For more information regarding the BIO Study Cohort go here.
Abrihet Queen, given name Valerie, was born on April 11, 1960, into the Core City neighborhood of Detroit, the sixth of nine children. Her parents worked hard and tirelessly to make ends meet. She soaked in beloved community, surrounded by a wealth of grandparents and parents faithfully watching over the neighborhood. At age three, she was rescued after being kidnapped. “I was snatched,” Valerie recounts, “but the community found me, and I’m still here.”
Much of Valerie’s strength is rooted in the women who raised her. Grandma Winnie was a nurse who worked the midnight shift at Henry Ford Hospital, loving every patient without judgment. Grandma Dorothy was constantly cooking and feeding the neighborhood. When Val’s mother was fourteen, she joined a dozen other teenagers in successfully shutting down the segregated theater in Romulus, Michigan.
When she was fifteen, Valerie found God. Before every Sunday service, she sat with “Benny,” the heroine-addicted man taking up residence on her church’s street corner. Val has always identified as more of a “community person” than a “church person.” She differentiates from the devout she sees turning the other way while white “saviors” divide and conquer Detroit’s neighborhoods and Commons as if it were a monopoly board—or worse, become apologists for these wolves in sheep’s clothing.
Her feet firmly planted in the streets of Detroit, Val is committed to standing with those shut off, pushed out, and ground down. She tirelessly sees and speaks the truth this apocalyptic neoliberal moment has to tell: namely that Detroiters are living through one of the most thoroughly colonizing takeovers of a U.S. city in history. Val is determined to invite any and all with “eyes to see” to join this vital struggle.
She and her husband Bruce host community meals. Many from the community pour their hearts out to Val. She knows at a deep level that the fight against oppression begins and ends with love. “We could create a better world overnight,” she insists, “if we would just love ourselves enough. We have to help people develop enough love within themselves to carry the torch. You don’t have to tell people who love themselves to fight for themselves.”
In the wake of devastating, racist-driven water shut-off campaigns being carried out by the city, Val joined door-to-door canvassing projects with the grassroots organization We the People of Detroit. She met a 90-year old woman who had a gaping hole left in her roof by the summer floods of 2014. FEMA had inspected her home and deemed it ineligible for compensation. Not only did Valerie meet this woman in her rage and pain—recognizing them as her own—she immediately made calls to plead on behalf of this “mother” of the community. Within 24 hours, a young man was compelled to lend his roofing skills and equipment to cover the hole.
Val cannot help living and breathing the vivid reality imprinted on her during those early years: real wealth is not found in pocketbooks or bank accounts, but in the belovedness woven into the fabric of the community.
Valerie concisely describes her main calling: “To feel it, see it, then say it.” Ethiopian friends of Val’s gave her the name Abrihet (“She Brings Light”).
This is a Light that has grown stronger in her 24-year battle with unexplained tumors. This Light illumines her spirit, keeping her a step ahead of the team of neurologists attempting to treat her.
This Light shined as she laid in front of bulldozers coming for the neighborhood park she and neighbors fought to save from the hands of developers.
This Light burns brightly in her dreams, imparting warnings, wisdom and courage to speak personal, prophetic and timely truths to loved ones, friends, community leaders, and adversaries alike.
This Light knows no fear in the face of Death, confident her power will be unleashed in its fullness the day she joins the ancestors.
As disproportionate numbers of black and poor residents are being displaced and replaced by “green” space and “revitalization” fashioned in the image of young, white gentrification, Val cusses like Grandma Dorothy. “Polite language like ‘this is unfair’ isn’t getting the job done,” Val explains, “Language carries energy, and in these times we’re seeing, you better expect ‘this is some bullshit!’ to come out my mouth from time to time.”
Val sustains her strength with a few key spiritual practices. She journals faithfully, consciously sifting through what’s hers and what belongs to others. “When I hold it in,” she explains, “it hurts me.” She has kept a dream journal for thirty years, a practice that keeps wisdom flowing and protects her from unprocessed energy turning into toxic resentment.
She also dances it out. Just as Grandma Dorothy used to herd all the grandkids up on the couch and dance the French, Haitian, Cree and African stories of their people, when Val dances, she feels the healing power of these ancestors wash over her.
Finally, she is highly selective with which actions and events she shows up for. “We can’t be watering down the one voice we all have by running around crazy being at everything.” Val insists on working smarter, not harder. Her marriage of twenty-five years to Bruce has been a key support, a grounding of committed love, grace and mutual honesty out of which healing, consolation, prodding, celebration, and growth abound.
Abrihet Queen embodies the uniquely fragrant and truth-telling spirit of Beloved Detroit. It is a spirit that has her continually stepping in the way of Jesus. Or as she puts it, “Real love is hard, it hurts, and it is not easy. But when we step up to its challenge, it liberates us .”
Sources: Interview with Valerie on May 10, 2017, and the author’s participation in various organizing and community settings in Detroit between October 2014 – September 2017.