What Does It Mean To Be White And Have Community?

28 Feb

My Mom finding community? 
Mrs. Handler (Chucky's mom) and my mom, co-chairs, of Temple Israel Art Show, Waterbury, CT

Celebrating diverse Jewish community at Diana’s Passover Seder

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February 14th marked ten years of writing the Wendy Jane Soul Shake blog. What started as a singular journey to question and explore my strong desire to connect across racial lines, embrace Black arts and culture, and fight against the most overt forms of racism, while knowing some of the subverted systems of oppression, is still a journey for certain. In the last few years, thanks to video recordings, and the realization of how fragile our democracy really is, many of us white folks finally awakened to the racial violence this country was founded on, and continues to perpetuate. We also know many white folks are clinging tightly to their positions of power, privilege, and white comfort. The blog, and my journey, has taken these twists and turns right alongside this living history.

Lately, though, I think about what kinds of things I should be writing about now. Not that there isn’t enough evidence to show us that the work of, not simply being aware of racism, but of working toward a future where we are all liberated from racism, is still needed. In just the last month we learned of the killing of Amir Locke. Amir was a young Black man from Minneapolis, killed by a police officer conducting a no-knock warrant. On February 18th, the convicted police officer that “accidentally” thought her gun was a taser and killed Black teenager, Duante Wright, received the lightest prison sentence of two years for taking Duante’s life.

And not that there’s not still Black people, people of color, Indigenous people, LGBTQ folks, and folks with disabilities, fighting to get a foot in the door, raise the glass ceiling, and merely to feel they are authentically accepted and belong in the majority white work spaces they so often find themselves in. All of this still exists despite the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives that every corporation, and non-profit organization hurried to initiate after the murder of George Floyd. DEI is big business now, as evidenced by the many job openings available for DEI Directors.

There is so much more of course which we need to transform, and I feel it’s important to keep documenting these times we are moving through. Yet I’m feeling I need to make some changes too–here on the blog–and in the way I move through this world. In a recent post a friend suggested I bring in other voices–perhaps interview, or be in conversation with others about racism, white body supremacy, and the work of transformation. To write about a future that is for all of us. A future where we exist side-by-side without the weight of a hierarchal oppressive system. To hear from others through their lens, and lived experience, what all of this means to them, and how they see a way to do the work we so sorely need to keep doing.

Got Community?

Which brings me to community. Right before the pandemic I interviewed for an opportunity to be trained as one of a group of Artist/Community Health Workers, who would engage and co-create an arts-based project with a selected community, considered marginalized. During the interview, I was comfortable answering questions, like, “Why are people poor? Is it because they’re lazy, don’t work hard enough?” I was able to plainly answer that I believed it was racism, and structures and laws of oppression, like redlining, urban renewal, inequality in school resources, and not people’s laziness or lack of responsibility. Then I was asked the question, and I’m paraphrasing here, “What community or communities do you consider yourself a part of?” Right away, I became uncomfortable, and blocked. I didn’t have an answer about my community.

I had only recently heard a few Black people, leaders and activists in the racial justice world, say that white people don’t have community. It often takes me quite a while for something to click, to understand the depth of what is being said. During the interview, I stammered. In my head, I thought about how growing up I felt I belonged in a more formal way to my Jewish community. Our family belonged to a local Reform Temple. I went to weekly Hebrew school and Sunday school classes, celebrated the Jewish holidays with my family and relatives, and felt a connection to the small handful of Jewish kids in my elementary school classes. We were way outnumbered by the majority of Catholic and Protestant students. On Mondays when the Christian kids left school early for Catechism class, it was just me and Chucky Handler as the two Jewish kids left in the classroom, along with Nicky DiMerali, the only Muslim kid in the class. Days like those, my sense of our connection, of belonging to each other because we were in the minority, and other, was more pronounced.

Things changed once my sisters and I left home after high school. My family left the Temple. Also, my mother passed away from cancer when I was twenty-six. She was the glue that held together our family’s Jewish holiday celebrations. When she passed, and as our generation of kids grew up and moved away, the honoring of the holidays fell apart. Today, I am still in community with my Jewishness in a more informal way with my great friends, Diana, Marci and Ilira, and my Aunt Jane, who have over the years, included my daughters and me in their Jewish holiday celebrations. And though I don’t now belong to a synagogue or temple, I was invited to join the Racial Justice Committee at a Temple here in Providence, and am again, learning what it means to be in community there.

My mom finding community? Mrs. Handler (Chucky’s mom) (left) and my mom (right), co-chairs of Temple Israel Annual Art Show, Waterbury, CT

I don’t think I mentioned the Jewish community in the interview, but I did mention my artist and writer friends as people I am in community with. Still, I felt the tension in my body arise with the growing knowledge that I could not truthfully name much of a community that I was a part of.

I was painfully shy growing up, and often did, and still do, feel like an outsider in a group setting. When I was younger, I stayed quiet in the ballet and gymnastics classes, and larger social groups I found myself in. I was good when it was me and one friend, or within a small group of people, but for some reason, which I can finally say is most likely some form of social anxiety, I get petrified of sharing anything about myself or my opinions. While getting my morning coffee today, I was pondering all this, and said to myself, it’s part Wendy, and part white supremacy. It rhymed, and the ring of it sounded about right.

We are who we are as individuals, based on our family genes, brain chemistry, and the way we were raised. And being considered white, and growing up under the social norms and structures of white supremacy, and patriarchy, we are conditioned with what we are told are the proper manners, and ways to behave. Times have evolved. But a majority of us are still also taught that good old American dream myth of individualism, of how, if we just work hard enough, and simply pursue our passions, we can achieve whatever we desire. We are told success is having a job where you are paid a lot of money, have a house, get married, and have children, and raise them in the same way. Maybe the actual words aren’t said, but the lessons are learned through the modelling and messages we received in our homes, our schools, and our social groups, which all come from the overarching systems of white supremacy culture.

We aren’t taught the child across the street, or across in another neighborhood, is our child too. If we were, we would all work together to make sure everyone is safe, and every one is cared for and supported, and gets what they need to live and thrive in this life. We would lift one another up, and figure out what we need to fix things for the betterment of all of us.

And if you’re white and you are reading this and saying, but I have community, I will say, Not All White People. This is not personal. This is a system that is entrenched in white American society. Sure, there can be many of us who can name communities we are a part of, whether they are faith-based groups, book clubs, white-led anti-racism activist groups, running groups, parenting groups, and more. I know white people that have elder members of their families moved in with them to care for them. I see many friends who step up when a friend or a friend’s child falls ill, or faces some kind of harsh life event. Yet, even if we are working on cross-racial and cultural community building and engaging with folks that don’t look like us, are we bringing in our white norms of how this work should look? And what of our connection to other white people? Do we live in a web of interconnectedness with one another that serves the greater good of all? What I’m trying to get at is community as Dr. King called it in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

I am not an academic or social scientist, but I ask myself, and other white folks, have we been raised to truly live the words that some of us latch onto, which are attributed to people of the African diaspora: “it takes a village?”

And I wondered if we did, what then could our country look like?

And, like the first time I started hearing how white people don’t have community, I am now getting in touch with the idea of embodiment. I surprised myself, as someone who has worked in mental health for over twenty-five years, by not knowing until very recently what embodiment work meant. One of the first times I heard of the idea of working through trauma through the body was a few years ago when someone mentioned the book, The Body Keeps The Score. I started the book last year but I admit I didn’t get too far through it. I’ve had trouble focusing to read, and the book felt dry and clinical, and I found it hard to get into, valid as the work may be.

What Does It Mean To Be In Our Bodies?

Embodiment practices use the body as a tool for healing through self-awareness, mindfulness, connection, self-regulation, finding balance, and creating self-acceptance. The work of Embodiment or Somatic therapies believes the way for us to heal our trauma, and to settle our bodies out of the reactionary, fight or flight mode, is through working with our bodies to metabolize the trauma. Yes, it serves the individual. Yet it also serves the collective “us.” When we are embodied, we are present and can interrelate with others, and better serve the moment, have the challenging conversation, and work to make the changes and transformations we seek to see in this world.

Embodiment work, I know is a current buzz topic, and, yet I believe in the work. The way I felt my body respond during that interview when I became uncomfortable because I couldn’t find myself in community, showed me one example of how learning how to be aware and then settle my body in the moment could have opened me up to respond instead of react, and to show up as my authentic, imperfect self.

Another time the seeds of knowledge of embodiment were planted, was when sitting with musician/educator, and Director of Racial Equity and Belonging at the non-profit, Community Music Works, Ashley Frith. I always look forward to meeting up with Ashley, who I collaborate with in my work in mental health, and her work in also using her art as a tool for healing. In our informal planning meetings where we develop content for her artist residencies for patients and staff at the psychiatric hospital I work for, Ashley has said how we so often are not “in our bodies” and how in her work she tries to help people be in their bodies. I would nod my head, hearing this on a surface level, like, I know what you mean…being present, being in the moment, mindfulness…and would even think about how I know I run away from my body, but the real acknowledging or knowing of the depth of what she meant, I did not truly know.

I got deeper into my introduction to embodiment work when reading and doing all of the experiential somatic/body exercises in Resmaa Menakem’s book. My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathways to Mending our Hearts and Bodies. Resmaa, aside from being an author, is also a psychotherapist specializing in the effects of trauma on the human body and relationships in Black families and Black society. He calls his current ant-racism embodiment work, somatic abolitionism.

For keeping up my learning, I now follow Resmaa on social media (look for him on twitter and IG). Also, Ashley informed me about The Embody Lab, “an online hub for embodiment education, connection, and healing, for global transformation.” I just attended their online Embodied Social Justice Summit last weekend. The five-day free summit was packed with many speakers from the field, including a highly,can’t be put in words, impactful session with Resmaa Menakem and the Reverend Angel Kyodo Williams. Only able to attend on the weekend because of work ,I did still get to hear many people speak, some of whom led us through experiential body work. I was also actually able to see the many faces attending on-screen, and to engage in a breakout session during one of the talks. The Summit was educational, inspiring, and overwhelmingly enriching. I feel like I finally get more what embodiment is about, and want to go deeper into the work in service of social justice. At the summit, even though it was online, I felt a sense of community.

I believe I have a very unsettled body, and one that avoids conflict–again, part Wendy, part white supremacy. I believe that embodiment will help me be able to be present instead of reactionary in the midst of the work I am doing with others, in service of the collective transformation necessary to see a better future for all of us. Part of white supremacy culture, too, and part of human nature, can be thinking we can have a quick fix, or we keep searching for something outside of us to ready us for growth, and we can keep waiting for ourselves to be perfect at something before we take action. This sentiment was actually voiced by a Latinx man who was a part of the Summit breakout session I was in. He said that “white people are always waiting to be perfect…and then they don’t act..” He expressed his frustration with this, which led him to currently withdraw some, from the years of activism work he had been a part of. In getting more involved with embodiment work, I vow to myself to not wait to be perfect.

The Building Blocks Of Community

Another recent opportunity to come out of my Wendy and white supremacy conditioned body, and to enter into new communities focused on transforming our future through anti-racism work, was a five-session online Beloved Community group with author, activist, non-profit leader, political leader, and speaker, Shay Stewart-Bouley. Shay is the author of the blog, Black Girl in Maine, which chronicles her life as a Black woman living in the very white state, as well as her experiences with racism, doing anti-racism work, and now includes other writers on race, too.

In her desire to have white people deepen their anti-racism work beyond talking about it, and reading all the right books, Shay created the Beloved Community as a forum for people–everyone was invited, regardless of race or ethnicity–to come together to share our stories of race, share what obstacles come up for us in doing anti-racism work, and to promote us taking concrete actions in service of bringing about equity, true inclusion, accountability, and racial justice in our communities–whether that is with family, friends, our workplaces, our schools, our local businesses, or our neighborhoods.

Throughout our online meet-ups, I held the paradox in my body and mind about being anxious about messing up and saying something ignorant and imperfect, and knowing that I was fully okay with messing up, because that is part of the process, and journey. It’s not about me. It’s about transforming white supremacy culture through community building. While the Wendy DNA that’s meshed with the white supremacy gets in the way in group settings like our Beloved Community, I truly experienced growth by being a part of it. Shay provided the container, and served as facilitator of our monthly meetings with fifteen white woman and one white man, ranging in age from, I believe, our 30’s through 70’s, many living in Maine, and the New England area.

In the Beloved Community I got to hear from everyone else about their lived experiences, how they came to this work, what they are up to now, and the progress and setbacks and challenges they face when doing the work, or block themselves from doing the work. Whether we want to call our blocks fear, or something else, it really is about unlearning our entrenched white supremacy ways of being.

I got to share about my experiences too. During the next-to-last session, Shay also gave us each a “buddy” from the Beloved Community to talk to outside of group. This was great, as I got to talk to a woman where we shared about actual things we are working on in terms of racial justice, supported one another with feedback and ideas, and were vulnerable and honest about who we are as we do this work. We plan, as Shay hopes for all of us in the group, to continue talking beyond the scope of our Beloved Community, which ended last week. I have deep gratitude for Shay and her work, and for convening all of us together in service of moving racial justice work forward, with truth, grace, and accountability.

Let’s Talk!

I am learning about what community means, and what it means to build community. I am working on unlearning the untrenched ways of white supremacy culture which hinder building safe, inclusive, loving communities.

I would love to hear your thoughts about community. What it means to you. What communities you belong to. How you build community. How you use community building to work toward racial justice.

I am highly grateful for this community here–to you who read the blog, who interact with me, and one another, here on the blog, on other social media platforms where the blog is shared, and of course, in live conversation off of social media, I thank you for helping me to realize what community is.

Accountability is Good. Sustained Justice Is The Goal.

28 Nov

Wanda Cooper-Jones

Wanda Cooper-Jones

I was at a checkout counter at the mall last week when I looked down at my phone to see the breaking news that Rittenhouse had been acquitted. I moaned, “Oh no!” aloud, and the young cashier gave me a look of compassion, perhaps thinking I just received word of a mishap with a family member.

“That kid that killed people in Wisconsin got off…” I said.

The cashier returned an “ohhh…” tinged with glum, as she wrapped my candles, a Chanukah gift, for my older daughter. I texted both of my daughters right afterward with the news. Leni, 21, texted back, “that’s disgusting.”

As I said in my previous post on the Wisconsin trial, my daughters and I weren’t surprised by the verdict. Still, I knew I needed to hold on to hope this week that the murderers of Ahmaud Arbery would be convicted. And while I had been obsessively checking my phone once the Rittenhouse jury went into deliberations, I wasn’t doing that as often with the McMichaels and Bryan trial decision. This time I got the news through a friend’s Instagram message while at the grocery store. The message said, “at least they convicted those rednecks today.”

Amen, I said to myself, as I placed my groceries on the conveyer. I texted my daughters the article sharing the guilty verdicts, and Leni’s reply this time: “as they should.”

I know this verdict is so important, and it is, finally, like my daughter said, as it should be. We know this nation’s scales of justice have tipped far, far too many times to the wrong side. Countless numbers of Black men, women and children, have been blamed and convicted for crimes they did not commit. We know the horrors of our history where white people played judge, jury and executioner, and that all it took was for a white woman to say a Black man, or boy, looked at her a certain way for him to be strung up on a tree the next day. And that white people by the thousands would come out to watch, even dress for the occasion, take photos, make postcards, take their own children to witness these lynchings, just as easily as they were going for a picnic in the park.

It is important that the nearly all white jury convicted the defendants in this Southern state trial, this 21st century lynching of Ahmaud Arbery. These three men hunted Ahmaud down, thinking simply because he was a Black man running down the street in “their neighborhood,” he must be up to no good, that he must be the person breaking into homes in the area. They acted on what they felt entitled to do–to make a citizen’s arrest, to stand their ground.

I think of author, therapist and somatic abolitionist, Resmaa Menakem’s anti-racism work that says we carry racial trauma in our bodies. In no way giving them any inkling of a pass, was it in the DNA of those three men to act out the Negro Act of 1740? The act, was essentially a slave catcher’s law, “passed by South Carolina’s colonial government, after the Stono Rebellion, an uprising of enslaved people in the state. This act barred freedom of assembly of African Americans. And more egregious, this act gave white men the power and authority to arrest, detain, hunt or kill Black folks whom they felt were a threat or danger.” (Charleston City Paper, Nov. 2021. see below)

But the thing is, this is not the McMichaels’ or Bryan’s land. Brunswick, Georgia, where Ahmaud was murdered, belongs to the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor. Ahmaud descended from the Gullah Geechee nation of enslaved people who were brought to North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida to work the rice, cotton, and indigo plantations there. Because they lived on coastal plantations isolated from the more populous mainland, the Gullah Geechee people retained a good deal of their cultural traditions, and created a Creole language of their own, Gullah, not spoken anywhere else in the world. (Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor. nps.gov. see below) Development and tourism has the dwindling number of descendants continuing to fight for their land, and the survival, and passing down of their culture. When Ahmaud was murdered, the Gullah Geechee nation lost one more member of their family.

Aside from being a beloved son, I learned, Ahmaud Arbery was a good friend to many, with a great sense of humor. Ahmaud was also an accomplished athlete, who after his high school football career finished, continued to inspire his coach and teammates for pushing himself, and his friends, to strive for more. In The Bitter Southerner article, written by Jim Barger, Jr. (see below), the author tells how neighbors used to love to watch Ahmaud pass by on his regular jogs, saying he always had a wave and a smile, and would often stop for a game of basketball if he saw neighborhood kids out playing. A close friend of Ahmaud’s, Akeem Baker shares how Ahmaud “had a pure heart and soul,” how “he held no hate in his heart,” and how, “his happiness came from others being happy.” Ahmaud’s former coach, Jason Vaughn, spoke of his endurance, and how running was a meditation for Ahmaud. For Coach Vaughn, the “I run with Maud” tagline that he coined, and which became a popular show of solidarity on social media, helps keep him going.

“I started saying ‘I run with Maud’ because I know I don’t have the endurance to run this race by myself. People thought I was saying I was running for Ahmaud, but that’s not it. Ahmaud was running with me. I say, ‘I run with Maud,’ because I’m tapping into his spirit and his endurance to help me outrun this anger, this injustice, and to finish this race; because we have a long way to go before our children are safe. They have murdered our kids before. Now, they have murdered Ahmaud.” He pauses, searching for the breath that escapes him. “And you know as well as I do that they will murder again.”

Yet, I don’t share the remembrances of Ahmaud from The Bitter Southerner article for us white folks to say, “it’s sad, he was a good, young Black man.” As if to say, there are only certain Black people’s lives that deserve us to fight for them. We must know how, as James Baldwin tells us in his writings, white people are unwilling to look in the mirror and acknowledge what we did, and do, in this country. Baldwin also says, rarely are white people able to see the humanity in Black people. And how fragile that view is. Sadly, Ahmaud’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, said she had to endure having her son’s humanity taken away from him by the lawyers representing her son’s murderers. Post verdict, she is thankful for what she says is “justice for Ahmaud.” In subsequent interviews, Cooper-Jones noted how after Ahmaud’s murder, Georgia did repeal its citizen’s arrest law, and instituted a hate crime law, and she is glad that her son’s name now will be remembered for that change.

Wanda Cooper-Jones called the trial outcome a victory. It is one, and we have to keep working to sustain real justice, and make sure the tide which turned back with the Rittenhouse verdict turns once again, back in the right direction going forward. It will take all of us to do this. Holding Ahmaud Arbery in our memory, I am asking fellow white folks to not rest on our relief at the outcome of this one trial. Like Coach Vaughn, we must endure. We must know we cannot do the work alone. We must raise our children to see the humanity each one of us possesses, even when, or especially when, our neighbor does not look like we do. We must make this run, for the lives of all of our children, our meditation.

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Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Site

https://www.nps.gov/places/gullah-geechee-cultural-heritage-corridor.htm

Arbery killers found guilty, Charleston-area justice leaders react, Charleston City Paper, by Herb Frazier, November 24, 2021, quote by historian and activist, Michael Allen

https://charlestoncitypaper.com/arbery-killers-found-guilty-charleston-area-justice-leaders-react/

Ahmaud Arbery Holds Us Accountable, The Bitter Southerner, by Jim Barger, Jr. May 14, 2020

https://bittersoutherner.com/2020/ahmaud-arbery-holds-us-accountable?fbclid=IwAR1CViyQcAOTCvuZ8dvZUWqoF19VJDd8GHQfAYdd5ffCBCrqjKStJ-HEpcM

The Unsurprise of Injustice. Now What?

22 Nov

community building

Justice was not served in the Kyle Rittenhouse case. Or our American (in)justice system worked the way it most often does: protecting and upholding white supremacy law and order.

The message was sent, loud and clear. If you are a young, white male, you can carry an assault weapon to a racial justice protest in the name of protecting property, and “backing the Blue.” You can walk the streets of the city and kill protestors, and all you have to do afterward is say you were there to protect good ol’ America from the bad protestors, and gosh golly, yes you even had to shoot and kill a couple of people, because they were trying to stop you from patrolling and protecting property, and were coming after you, and you had to defend yourself from the people–white, Black or Brown, who are ruining this country with their fight for humanity, freedom, and truth-telling history, and on top of that, getting in the way of you shooting and killing innocent people.

In the wake of the acquittal verdict, I read news articles and opinion pieces, and landed on a blog post published by author, non-profit executive, and activist, Shay Stewart-Bouley’s, Black Girl In Maine blog. The piece, Not Guilty, Also, Not a Surprise, by Samuel James, shares the difference for himself between being shocked and surprised about the verdict. Past history has shown him, and all of us, if our eyes are open, who gets away with murder, and who gets locked up for selling weed. He speaks of the foolishness of the racial construct in this country, and warns of us slipping backward in this country, as we “can all see the swell of violence coming…” that is, unless, “we are too busy being surprised to see it.”

As if this isn’t enough to move one to action, it was Shay’s words in introducing the article that dug even deeper into my soul. She said, it’s good for us white folks to reach out to our Black and Brown friends during this time to see how they are doing, but, “perhaps you should be reaching out to your fellow white folks to get your plans together to stem the tide of white nationalism growing in your communities. Are you sure your sons are not the next Kyle? What about the other young white boys, teens and men in your circles?”

“Will you discuss this verdict with loved ones over the holidays?” she asked.

Shay’s words push me to look to other white people, to think of our communities, schools, and other white majority spaces, and talk to one another about how we are going to raise our sons and daughters at home, in school, on the playground, in our neighborhoods? How are we modeling how we all have to care for and love one another, and have one another’s back, as if all children are our very own, because, they are. How are we modeling standing up for one another? What are we saying to our children, or our co-workers, when we overhear them say they think the Rittenhouse verdict was fair, or that they won’t put up with an all-gender bathroom, or they are fighting critical race theory in their children’s schools, even when they don’t know what it means, except they think it means their children will learn too much of the truth of this country’s history, and that it means that white people are “bad.” Are we saying or doing anything? Or are we simply saying to ourselves, we know all this is bad, but don’t do anything about it?

Are we promoting healthy spaces in our communities that help kids connect with one another, care for one another, include everyone in a loving way, lift one another up? Are we teaching our children to stand up for their Black and Brown friends when they have racist remarks made to them, or about them in their absence? Are we doing the same in the spaces we adults find ourselves in?

I am reminded also of Resmaa Menakem, author, therapist, and somatic abolitionist, who calls for white people to heal the racial trauma that resides inside our bodies, and to work with one another in our own communities to do so. Can we look inward and work on ourselves, and work with one another, because, work it is. There are no short-cuts here. If we keep building these relentlessly loving communities, which will take generations to do, instead of rage, fear and hatred, we can transfer down love from one generation to another, and one day, we might all really be free.

*****

I realize the majority of the time, it’s my voice here, with me sometimes asking, like I do in this very post, what am I doing, what are we doing? While there is some commenting when I post the blog on social media, there is often not too much interaction with you, the reader, here on the blog. Perhaps I have not been good at creating the space for that, and would like to get better at that. To that end, can you please do me a favor, and comment here on the blog, on an action you will take this month to be a part of fighting against the normalizing of white violence, and toward the building of a loving community? I would also like to hear feedback on what you’d like to see more of here. A friend suggested I have guest interviewees or conversations each month. What’s important to you?

As always I thank you for your readership, and more importantly your part in anti-racism work. It takes all of us to make change–to create the just future we want to live in, we want our children to live in, and we want our children’s children to live in. Thank you.

Photo credit: National Museum of African American History and Culture (no copyright infringement is intended)

I Lived in Tulsa for Three Years, and Yes, I Didn’t Know About the Tulsa Race Massacre Either, Until My First Visit

14 Jul

Kimberly Johnson, Rudisill Library

My friend Ellen, from my old writing group here in Rhode Island texted me the other week saying she had been reading a lot about the commemoration of the 100th year anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre. Ellen remembered I lived in Tulsa, and thought it might be something I want to blog about. In all honesty, I don’t know if I ever would have started to write about race at all if I hadn’t moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma in the spring of 2003.

So many of us never learned about the massacre that Ellen, herself, was now learning about. We weren’t taught about it in our history classes–and that includes Tulsa students, too. Right now though, there are multiple new documentaries out, and a lot of journalism coverage of this horrific event. But for those of you who still haven’t heard anything about it, the Tulsa Race Massacre occurred on May 31, and June 1st, 1921. It ignited “...when mobs of white residents, many of them deputized and given weapons by city officials, attacked Black residents and businesses of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It marks one of “the single worst incident(s) of racial violence in American history. The attack, carried out on the ground and from private aircraft, destroyed more than 35 square blocks of the district—at that time the wealthiest Black community in the United States, known as “Black Wall Street.” The horrific tragedy happened all because “19-year-old Dick Rowland, a Black shoeshiner, was accused of assaulting Sarah Page, the 17-year-old White elevator operator of the nearby Drexel Building,” where the story goes, Rowland tripped and possibly reflexively grabbed onto Page’s arm to stop himself from falling. He was taken into custody. Hundreds, and ultimately over a 1,000 white people had shown up ready to attack and lynch Rowland at the jail where he was being held. A small group of armed Black men, many of them army veterans who had fought for this country, showed up to protect Rowland from being lynched. When they were leaving the area after reassurance there would be no lynching, a mob of white men tried to disarm one of the Black men. In the struggle, a shot went off accidentally, and that’s all it it took for the melee to spin out of control. I recommend you look into the resources below to learn the entire story of the Tulsa Race Massacre, and the lingering impact of its after-effects that continue to this day.

How did I end up in Tulsa? I hadn’t wanted to move there in the first place. Tulsa is where my now, ex-husband, was born and raised. It was his push for us and our two daughters, one and three at the time, to live there–where the cost of living was cheaper than where we were in New York City, where it would be easier for him to start his furniture-making business, and where the girls would be surrounded by lots of cousins, and other family–that landed us there.

I had lived in New York City for 18 years as an adult, and though we couldn’t afford to stay there, I was a city gal at heart, and it was hard for me to let go. Tulsa, though a sizeable city of 400,000 people, always felt like a suburb to me when I had visited prior to our move. Spread out, big car culture, strip malls, less arts and culture, or so I thought, and being land-locked, was all this New England born and raised me could think of. That, and no good pizza, was on my mind when we packed all our things up and headed west.

What I wasn’t prepared for when we moved into our bungalow house on 18th Street near Lewis, was the culture shock of noting right away, that in Tulsa, we were now living surrounded by whiteness. In New York, I loved the diversity of the people–friends, co-workers, and city dwellers–in all the spaces I found myself in. People who I got to connect with, or simply be anonymous with, as we moved through the city, whether it was at work, walking through my neighborhood, sitting in restaurants, riding the subway, dancing in clubs, hosting an apartment party with my roommates, or huddled in tiny East Village theaters. It is not lost on me now, that the diversity I loved then, came with the privilege of being white and being able to move into an affordable apartment in “Alphabet City” in 1985, a then largely, Latino neighborhood. I didn’t have the consciousness I have now, and which is ever evolving, that knew I was loving that diversity without having to think about inclusion, disparities, and the costs of being Black and Brown, in all of these spaces. It also hadn’t occurred to me since I had lived in cities for so long, that pretty much everywhere in America, if you are residing outside of an urban center, and that even inside of our cities, there is segregation. After all, suburbs were invented so white people didn’t have to live next to people who didn’t look like them. In cities, there is the history of white people gentrifying neighborhoods, having had the access to generational wealth to, again, live on streets surrounded by other people of means, which left out a vast majority of Black and Brown people who were cut off from that access.

From our fifth floor walk-up one bedroom apartment in NYC to our sweet home on 18th and Lewis, Tulsa

But as a newcomer to Tulsa in 2003, all I could think about was how white everything was. It was stunning to me. I wondered how all the white people around me could be living day-to-day not noticing the white bubble they were in. I knew that Tulsa, and all of Oklahoma had a large Native population, and when I researched this, a 2019 report said that Tulsa actually is the city with the largest American Indian/Native Alaskan population in the country, with 14% of residents claiming at least partial heritage. My ex-husband’s great grandmother on his mother’s side was Cherokee. In fact, when he came to pick up our older daughter the other day to bring her back to where she’ll be living this summer, he noted that the reason his family ended up in Tulsa, and on the “Indian Rolls,” was because of The Dawes Act of 1887. The Dawes Act, according to the Cherokee Nation website, says, “was a turning point in determining tribal citizenship. The Act developed a Federal commission tasked with creating Final Rolls for the Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks, and Seminoles in Indian Territory (Oklahoma). The Commission prepared new citizenship rolls for each tribe, incorporating names of approved applicants while simultaneously documenting those who were considered doubtful and ultimately rejected. Upon approval of the Rolls, the Dawes Commission allotted a share of communal land to the approved individual citizens of these Tribes in preparation for Oklahoma statehood (1907). The Dawes Commission required that the individual or family reside in Indian Territory to be considered for approval.” Dividing up tribal lands, and annihilating each tribe from their cultural and social traditions, was what the Dawes act set out to do, and was successful at doing so.

My ex, while acknowledging his ancestry, said, as he has said before, that he and his immediate family don’t claim to still be connected culturally to their Cherokee heritage. Though he and my daughters all have Bureau of Indian Affairs and Cherokee Nation tribal cards, as far as appearance goes, it seems the genes on his Dad’s side, whose primary heritage is Scotch-Irish, won out. Many of his family members have red hair and freckles, and I know…who’s to say that someone looks or doesn’t look Irish or Indigenous, or, like people have told me, Jewish. In fact, my older daughter, Leni, was just talking about how she had been looking at a lot of old photographs of Native American people recently, and that, “Dad’s nose looks like a lot of the noses in the photographs.” My younger daughter, Darla, said, “Yeah, and I have Dad’s nose.” (She doesn’t like her nose. I do.)

When settling in in Tulsa, I didn’t see the large communities of Native or Latinx or Black people that I knew existed there, intersecting much with one another, and it bothered me. And as I say on my About page here, I became obsessed with wanting to connect with Black people. Now I know we’re not supposed to be thinking in binary terms, and the totality and intersection of race, gender, sexuality, class, ethnicity is where it’s at, but growing up at the end of the Civil Rights era, in the diverse industrial town of Waterbury, Connecticut, where I had always sought out connections with Black people, and had already been attracted to Black culture, what I was missing in Tulsa was my connection with Black people. So, I overcompensated in the reaching out department by seeking out Black people in public spaces, like Target, the flea market, and the grocery store. I knew though, that I wanted to make more real, deeper connections to the diverse but separate communities of people that existed where I was now living.

It has been a habit of mine throughout my life to seek out cross-racial connections in spaces that many white people don’t tend to venture into. In this vein, I understand at times my whiteness has asserted itself in problematic ways. I’d think,”oh, you say I shouldn’t be here as a white girl,” well let me be here, just because I thought there shouldn’t be racial barriers. I did this, even though at times, my actions could have put Black people, Black men, in particular, in danger. Like the time at age 18, when I was in Roxbury, a Black neighborhood in Boston, a city rife with racial tension in the early 1980’s. After a night of drinking at a club, and driving around with my college roommate, who was white, and two young men who were Black that we had met while out, we stopped to buy cigarettes. One of the young men said he’d go into the store himself, and that we should wait in the car, that it’d be safer, because of the neighborhood, and because of our races. I, after too many drinks, self-righteously said that I wanted to go in, arguing that we should all be able to be together and it shouldn’t matter. I did go in, and there was no incident in the store where the cashier and customers were all Black, but the silence that hung in the air spoke volumes. While at the time, I thought I was standing up for the ideal that white people and Black people should be able to co-exist in the same spaces without bigotry hurled at them, I could have well been the same kind of dangerous white woman, like Amy Cooper in Central Park, or that elevator operator in Tulsa in 1921. I could have put this young man in danger for being seen with a white woman, if the wrong white man had seen us that night.

Flashing forward a little over a decade later, I was dating my ex-husband in the early 1990’s, and I made my first visit to Tulsa with him. His older brother drove us around town one night, and we drove through the Greenwood District. Looking out the car windows, I saw a quaint main street of a few blocks with one-story brick building storefronts. Many of the spaces looked empty. His brother told me the story of what happened in 1921. I was sick to my stomach. I couldn’t believe it. I had never heard of the Tulsa Race Riot, as it was called then, or anything like it. I thought how could my boyfriend live in a place like this, be from a place that did this? I even remember thinking maybe I should break up with him. I didn’t break up with him, but I couldn’t shake the heaviness of this news, even the brief, incomplete story I received that night, of the Tulsa Race Massacre. I wasn’t taught about it in school, and I learned that my ex and the majority of the white people I met while living in Tulsa, hadn’t learned about it either, and what little they did know, they acknowledged most white people kept quiet about it.

Living in Tulsa, I couldn’t keep quiet about how I was feeling about now living surrounded in whiteness, and the history of Tulsa, which I understood lent itself further to this separation. These feelings prompted me to write about my obsession with cross-racial connection. At first it was mostly journaling, and then the writing became the beginnings of my first essays, including the piece that would eventually become, Is Poppy A Black American? , one of the first blog posts here on this site. Writing was something I always felt drawn to, but I hadn’t done in any serious way before. But now, in Tulsa, it seemed like the only way to express my feelings about being stuck in sameness. While I didn’t have the language we have now about all these things, like inclusion, exclusion, white privilege, and white supremacy, beyond only linking it with the Ku Klux Klan, I knew I just had to write.

Aside from my writing, like I did in my past, I also sought out connections with members of the Black community in Tulsa. I was told the majority of Black people in Tulsa lived in what was called North Tulsa, due to being completely displaced with the destruction of Black Wall Street, and the entire Greenwood district. It was also inferred that white people didn’t really go to North Tulsa, so naturally, I looked to North Tulsa, to learn about the community and the people who lived there. I reached out and was accepted as a volunteer at the Rudisill Library in North Tulsa. The library houses The African American Resource Center and that is where I volunteered, reporting to then Director, Kimberly Johnson. Kimberly, originally from New York City, is now the Tulsa City-County Library Chief Executive Officer. She warmly welcomed me as a volunteer. I often brought my daughter Darla with me, who was two at the time, and she was always welcome, too. She stayed by my side reading board books while I shelved books, and magazines like Jet, Ebony, Mosaic, Black Enterprise and Sepia. I also got to help get ready for author visits, and fondly remember the talks of J. California Cooper, and Eric Jerome Dickey. I was saddened to hear that Eric passed away this year at the age of 59. I had remained in touch with him via social media. An engineer, turned stand-up comedian, turned prolific author of thirty novels, when Eric showed up on Facebook, I always appreciated his sense of humor, his being vocal on the ills of the world, and I was grateful for how he even so generously took the time to give me supportive feedback when I started this blog.

Kimberly Johnson, Rudisill Library

Kimberly Johnson, then, Coordinator of Rudisill Library’s African American Resource Center. Presently CEO of Tulsa City-County Libraries.

My daughters, Darla, front, and Leni, back, spending time at Rudisill Library with me while I volunteer.

I also remember Kimberly pointing out to me an elder woman at a library event, who was one of the remaining survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre. I was deeply honored to be in her presence. The Resource Center, whose purpose is to collect, preserve and provide access to honoring and documenting the experiences of people of African descent, helped me learn more about the Tulsa Race Massacre, even though there still seemed to be so much discrepancy, especially in the white community, about the breadth of the destruction, and the number of people who were killed. Most white people just didn’t talk about it, and when they did, or when you saw something in the newspaper, it minimized the level of destruction, and especially the number of people who had died as a result of it. Accounts from the white community seemed to say it was anywhere from one or two or twelve or twenty people who were killed, and yet accounts from the Black community would say it could have been in the hundreds.

I hear so many people presently, Black, white, and Brown, who say they still don’t know much about the Tulsa Race Massacre, including people who live in Tulsa. What people who don’t know also need to learn more about, is that the Tulsa Race Massacre is not an isolated incident. There was Rosewood in Florida, the Elaine Massacre in Arkansas, and the Wilmington Massacre in North Carolina, to name just a few of many others carried out in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. In fact, two years before the Tulsa Race Massacre, the year 1919 was deemed Red Summer, for the white supremacist terrorism and race riots and massacres that occurred in over three dozen cities across the country. White people carried out these massacres due to resentment over their perceived threat of losing jobs to Black people, in particular, Black veterans, after World War I. White people didn’t want Black veterans to think they no longer had to follow Jim Crow laws even though they had just fought for our country, side-by-side with with white soldiers. White people feared the autonomy of Black people who were now becoming successful in business, home ownership, and gaining political power. These massacres were a result of white people’s fear, envy, greed, and hatred.

After the Tulsa Race Massacre, there was the harshest disenfranchisement of the entire well-to-do Black community of Greenwood. Tens of thousands of people lived in encampments, and/or were pushed even further north, their homes and businesses and churches burned to the ground, millions of dollars in investments lost. Yet, the Greenwood district was rebuilt by some of its inhabitants, rising from the ashes like the great Phoenix. There were strong attempts to halt this rebuilding by the white community, who blocked access to business loans and other relief funding. As time moved on, segregation laws loosened, allowing Black people to shop in previously whites-only establishments, and some of the business in the Greenwood area was lost. My ex’s brother, a city planner, told me how urban renewal of the 1960’s and 1970’s, like in many urban cities across the country, broke up those communities further by building highways right through them. That’s what happened to Greenwood. Of the thirty-five blocks of the Greenwood district that thrived during the early 1900’s, only two blocks now remain.

I remember walking down Greenwood Avenue for the first time, feeling the enormity of what that street was, and I know perhaps also felt a bit conspicuous as a white person walking through the neighborhood. I was an outsider, and was just learning the culture of the Midwest, and I didn’t know if I stood out as a white person walking down the street, given its history, and because, people didn’t walk around much in Tulsa. They drove, they parked, and got out and did what they had to do and got back in their car and drove off. I even remember one day when I decided to walk down a main road a few miles from the fairgrounds to my home, I had several people stop and ask if I was okay and if I needed a ride, because something must have been wrong since I was walking.

On Greenwood Avenue, though, I also wondered if I would be seen as an unwelcome intruder. I am not sure if it is a process of aging, but some of my memories are dim, which I wish were not. I can remember walking down the street, and that there were not too many retail businesses, that there were some offices, and I believe the newspaper office of The Oklahoma Eagle, was there, and some historic markers of what used to be in some of these places. I remember visiting the Greenwood Cultural Center (GCC), which hosts special events, exhibits and youth programming, and which “…stands as a monument to the scores of pioneers, trailblazers, entrepreneurs, professionals, politicos, and citizens who created a renowned and respected community despite formidable odds.” At the GCC, I met Cindy Driver, the then Director of the middle-school aged girls program, Women of Tomorrow. Cindy and I would soon collaborate on a youth arts workshop, which I will share about in the second installment of my writings on Tulsa.

Of course, the longer I lived in Tulsa, I learned there was much more to the city, and the state, than the white bubble I had first encountered. I learned, too, that there were, of course many more dimensional stories beyond the Tulsa Race Massacre, to the lives of the Black people living in Tulsa, and other surrounding towns, as well as with people of the Indigenous and immigrant communities in Tulsa. I took part in cultural events like the historic Black Towns tour, and the annual large-scale Tulsa Powwow, along with visits to the Gilcrease, and Philbrook Museums. I ate frybread for the first time, and found out what Frito Pies, and Indian tacos were. The taste of the pico de gallo at Rio Verde, a popular Mexican restaurant in North Tulsa, still lingers on my tongue. Delicious food is most often the factor that white people deem worthy to cross over into neighborhoods they often declare as “sketchy,” which was the case with Rio Verde, one place where the diversity of the city was represented over plates of gorditas, and glasses of horchata. I don’t eat meat so I never tried chicken fried steak, or Coneys, similar to the Olneyville system weiners we have here in Providence, Rhode Island. My hunch on the pizza was pretty correct though.

I also partook in more events at the Rudisill Library, like the memoir cookbook book signing of Cleora’s Kitchen. The event was hosted by her nephew, Dudley Thomas, who interviewed his aunt, Cleora Butler, and helped pull the book together, which was published on the day Mrs. Butler passed away. Cleora, who grew up in Muskogee, Oklahoma, was a renowned cook, and owner of her own catering company. She cooked for decades for many local oil barons, and other families, as well as for celebrities, like Cab Calloway’s band, when they were passing through town. Her Blue Cream House Special, a savory dip, was my go-to to make and bring to social gatherings with friends, and was always a big hit. As writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie tells us, there is the danger of the single story. In that vein, I learned of the successes and joys and every day lives of members of the Black community and other communities of color. While I, while we, must learn about, and never, ever forget the horror of the Tulsa Race Massacre, I know I, and I hope we all, understand we must learn of the vast accomplishments and contributions that Black people in this country made to the shaping and building of this country. Like the Massacre, these histories were kept hidden from our school books, too.

I was highly inspired at the writing workshop I participated in with local writers Eddie Faye Gates, and Hannibal Johnson, both who have written multiple books about Tulsa, and other Oklahoma history, including the Tulsa Race Massacre. Watching the recent documentary, Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre, and reading multiple articles about this horrific event, where both Gates and Johnson are noted, and interviewed due to their knowledge and research on this history, I further realize what a gift and honor it was to be in their presence, and to listen to them share firsthand their wisdom and experiences. I was especially endeared to Eddie Faye Gates, a long time teacher in the Tulsa school system who was personally responsible for gathering over fifty oral history interviews with survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre. She knew how important it was to collect these true witness accounts before people passed away, and the truth was further erased. I learned that even in the Black community, these stories were kept quiet. The survivors still alive today, who were mostly children of varying ages at the time of the Massacre, also got the message to keep quiet about it from the adults in their lives, primarily out of fear of retribution, and to not have to relive the trauma and pain, or burden younger generations with it.

I talked with Mrs. Gates after the workshop. She was kind and generous, and I must have shared that I was Jewish, because I remembered she shared with me how she had strong ties with the Jewish community in Tulsa. I later learned, aside from her work and writings reflecting life in the Black community of Tulsa and other parts of Oklahoma, Eddie Faye Gates had also done extensive research on the Holocaust, and was a Holocaust Studies consultant. I was thrilled to learn while writing this post, that the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, in 2020, received the Eddie Faye Gates Tulsa Race Massacre Collection, “which contains a wealth of eyewitness accounts, photographs, and recorded survivor stories and other narratives of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre,” and which is a highly important history collection to be preserved and shared. The selfless work of Mrs. Gates, included being a part of the Oklahoma Commission To Study The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, in which part of this study calls for reparations for its survivors, should be uplifted and duly noted. The work of Black women is so often marginalized.

Another Black women, and newer resident of Tulsa in 1921, Mary E. Jones Parrish, watched the Massacre unfold from her apartment window, refusing to leave so that she could witness everything in its entirety. Parrish, an educator and entrepreneur, would share her story, considered, according to a recent New Yorker article on her, “the first and most visceral long-form account of how Greenwood residents experienced the Massacre..” in her book, Events of the Tulsa Disaster, published in 1923. Mary E. Jones Parrish’s great-granddaughter, Anneliese Bruner, is now working to get the book, and Ms. Parrish’s life, more widely read and recognized. A new edition of the book, with the title, The Nation Must Awake, contains a foreword by Ms. Bruner in which she shares what she sees as the parallels of what happened in Tulsa, with the January 6th storming of the capitol, as well as “racism endorsed by people in power.” This is what drives her to get her great-grandmother’s work out in the world again, so that we can work to stop the cycle of hate, violence, and injustice.

In my own trying to catch up with what is going on currently in Tulsa, I talked this month with my former sister-in-law, Paula Warlick. Aside from the important work she does, I always remember how she took me to the best thrift shops all over Tulsa. I felt proud of her when I learned that through her work as a Grassroots Manager with the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN), she has initiated a project–a short documentary and upcoming virtual panel, on racial health disparities and access to medical care, which will focus on people living in North Tulsa. She shared that she is following the guidance of key members of the Black community in North Tulsa, like Kristi Williams, activist, and co-owner of the Black Wall Street tour, and Tulsa Councilwoman Vanessa Hall-Harper, in order to gather the full story of how the Tulsa Race Massacre and the impact of racial violence, the geographic displacement of a generation of people, the loss of generational wealth, and other forms of systemic racism have impacted the health, and access to healthcare, of the people of North Tulsa to this day.

Paula, with this collaborative project, is hopeful that by shining a light on, and building awareness of these disparities, as well as sharing about the ability for more people to receive Medicaid coverage, that real change can begin to happen. The ACS CAN statement for the panel reflects the same: “…With the passing of Oklahoma’s Medicaid Expansion bill on July 1st, which will provide health coverage for low-income individuals who don’t have other access to healthcare coverage, the Cancer Action Network understands the systems which create such disparities, and is working with several organizations and community leaders in Tulsa to host a conversation about the intersection between racial violence, systemic racism, health disparities, and the importance of access to healthcare.” The speakers for the panel event will include Kristi Williams, Co-Owner of the Black Wall Street Tour; Dr. Jabraan Pasha, MD, Assistant Dean of Student Affairs at the University of Oklahoma School of Community Medicine; Councilwoman Vanessa Hall-Harper, Tulsa City Council District 1; and Lance Barbour, ACS CAN Sr. State and Local Campaigns Manager. You can access and register for the July 23rd Zoom webinar panel, Medicaid and Health Equity: 100 Years After The Tulsa Race Massacre, here.

My daughters and I were so glad to have Paula’s daughter Zoe visit with us this week from Tulsa. A young adult now at 22, I asked Zoe, who attends college out-of-state, if she had attended any of the Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial remembrance events. She said she and her Mom walked around the Tulsa Drillers baseball stadium, ONEOK Field, which was moved to the Greenwood district from its former home at the Tulsa Fairgrounds. They walked the Pathway of Hope, which is a newly created pathway that acts as a connector within the Greenwood district, after the highway further divided up the neighborhood in the 1960’s. The Pathway contains photographs, historic marker plaques, and inspirational quotes, with a mission both to instill hope, and, to honor local prominent historian, John Hope Franklin, who strove to preserve the history of the Tulsa Race Massacre.

I also asked Zoe about whether she was taught about the Massacre in school. Zoe said that in middle school and in high school, there were lessons on the Massacre, and a film–she said, the same films every year, one a student-made film, that they watched. In her freshman year in high school, Zoe took an Oklahoma history class, where she said she learned more in depth about the Massacre. She shared that she and her fellow students most likely did have these lessons because the neighborhood the schools were in were close to, or within the Greenwood district, especially her high school, Booker T. Washington High School, which, by intention, has a diverse student body. She believed that other schools probably didn’t have the same lessons, as they were not a part of the formal curriculum, inferring that they probably left these lessons out because they weren’t comfortable with teaching and discussing it, or didn’t consider the need an important one. Zoe was grateful for the inclusion of lessons on The Tulsa Race Massacre, stating that it was so important to learn this history, even if the lessons weren’t always substantial. She also shared that through witnessing her mother put together the ACS CAN event, she has learned a lot more. One thing Zoe shared with me that I also hadn’t known, was that Tulsa moved the ONEOK minor league baseball stadium from the Fairgrounds to the Greenwood district–that same stadium where she and Paula walked The Pathway to Hope–without concern about what it meant to build an arena in this neighborhood traumatized by violence and destruction, as well as for the fact that the ground beneath the stadium was once a Native burial ground, which may also hold some remains of those killed during the Massacre.

Zoe also told me about the Tulsa artist collective, Fire in Little Africa, made up of rappers, singers, musicians, poets, and visual artists, who have produced an album, documentary and podcast, in commemoration of the Centennial of the Massacre. The project is being produced in the mansion formerly owned by ‘(W. Tate Brady, an Oklahoma businessman and member of the Ku Klux Klan. It was from this mansion that Brady, also believed to be one of the key architects of the massacre, descended 99 years ago to patrol the blood-stained streets of the Greenwood District, where Black Wall Street was.” (Business Insider) Stevie Johnson, aka Dr. View, the producer of the project, said though many of the artists involved felt uncomfortable recording in this home that held such a traumatic history, he feels that with Fire in Little Africa they are “reclaiming the space as their own, and bending history,” showing that what was happening then is still happening now, but artists like themselves, can create a new history, and make spaces for themselves to shape that new history.

In the three years that I lived in Tulsa, I learned a small part of that past history that Fire in Little Africa, and many other members of the Black community of Greenwood, and North Tulsa, are now bending in major ways, like Onikah Asamoa-Caesar, owner of Fulton Books & Coffee, whose mission “is to create a space to call home…to build community and to change our city through civic discourse..”, and Dr. Ricco Wright, founder of the Black Wall Street Gallery. Despite what people in the white community in Tulsa tried to forget, and keep secret, through the destruction of records, and through silence, this country, and the world, is finally learning more, too.

I know the Tulsa I lived in fifteen years ago has progressed in terms of consciousness, and a willingness of more members of the white community to acknowledge the horrific events of the Massacre and its impact. ILooking at friends’ photographs and social media feeds of Commemoration events, I saw many people of all different races, and ethnicities coming together to acknowledge this important moment. Yet, I’m also hearing, as I look for recent articles, and news reports on the Commemoration, voices of concern over gentrification of the Greenwood district, as well as commodification of the history of Greenwood, some of it by outsiders whose gains would not be contributing to the Greenwood community. I’m looking forward to talking with friends who still live in Tulsa, and through more research, to rediscover the Tulsa of today.

One person who I was grateful to reconnect with through email while writing this post was Alicia Latimer . Alicia is the current Coordinator of the African American Resource Center at the Rudisill Library, and is someone I also connected with when carrying out another art workshop with girls from the Greenwood Cultural Center’s Women of Tomorrow program. She let me know how Tulsa is busy with Commemoration events, and how though it is hard to recall this event and do the work to share about it, she carries on, and she encouraged me to do the same.

And, though I could only see myself surrounded by whiteness when I first arrived in Tulsa, I did, and I know that anyone else can too, find integrated spaces, and make connections with people whose backgrounds and experiences are different than their own. This reminds me of when I got to meet Civil Rights activist, Xernona Clayton, at the Race Amity Conference held in Norwood, Massachusetts. Ms. Clayton, originally from Oklahoma, said, that to live and engage with people who are different from ourselves is what makes life rich. I agree. And, if you seek it, you will find it. I uncovered things I didn’t know before. I learned more about the Tulsa Race Massacre and how that horrific act 100 years ago, still impacts the inequity that exists for Black people in Tulsa today, as well as serves as a reminder of the pain and trauma endured. Anyone who wishes to learn more about inequity, about the Massacre, about diversity, if you care about any or all of this, you can seek it, learn it, and be a part of bending history, too.

Sometimes it still feels strange that this New England born, city girl, lived in Tulsa. I used to reflexively roll my eyes right along with my friends when they’d say, “I can’t believe you lived in Tulsa..,” but Tulsa was for me a place where I found out more about who I am by building bridges, and Tulsa was where the seeds were planted for me to become conscious of how important the matter of cross-racial connection, and breaking down racism, and racist systems were to me. Even though diversity and fighting racism was something I cared deeply about since I was a child, Tulsa is where, as an adult, my life-long pursuit for racial justice and equity through writing, and through actions, took root. Hardly something to roll my eyes about.

It is my hope that you will check out the many articles and resources below to learn more about the history of the Tulsa Race Massacre, and the great achievements of people of the Black community in Tulsa. I look forward to hearing any stories and experiences you have to share, whether you are from Tulsa, or wherever you live, in relation to this important history, and in relation to your desire to build bridges, and be a part of the change we need in this country.

SOURCES:

Tulsa Commission 2001

Gilcrease Museum to Receive Eddie Faye Gates Tulsa Race Massacre Collection, The Black Wall Street Times, October 13, 2020

The Women Who Preserved The Story of The Tulsa Race Massacre, The New Yorker, May 28, 2021, Victor Luckerson

https://www.newyorker.com/news/us-journal/the-women-who-preserved-the-story-of-the-tulsa-race-massacre

Tulsa Entrepreneurs Reclaim Black Wall Street 99 Years After Massacre, Business Insider, May 28, 2021 (originally published June 2020), Dominic-Madori Davis , Jennifer Ortakales Dawkins , Tat Bellamy Walker , and Dominick Reuter

https://www.businessinsider.com/tulsa-massacre-entrepreneurs-reclaim-black-wall-street-trump-rally-juneteenth-2020-6#

Rudisill Library, African American Resource Center, Tulsa

https://www.tulsalibrary.org/research/african-american-resource-center

Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre, documentary, The History Channel

https://www.history.com/specials/tulsa-burning-the-1921-race-massacre

In Memory of George Floyd, One Year Later

24 May

George-Floyd-memorial
George Floyd Memorial
George Floyd Memorial. Photo credit: nytimes.com

Today marks the eve of the day George Floyd was murdered by that police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. And, even though he was convicted for the murder, which is a good thing, we still have to overhaul the whole system of policing. We are hearing the range of ideas from reform to abolition, being that at its very root, policing served as slave patrol. I know Minneapolis is making some strides in this, as are other cities, in looking to funnel money being spent on policing to mental health and social services resources, like utilizing social workers, and community health workers, to transform the way we envision and enact public safety.

This evening, I will light a yahrzeit candle, a custom in the Jewish religion, to mourn the anniversary of George Floyd’s passing. The candle is lit to burn for 24 hours to remember and honor the anniversary of a loved one’s passing. If George Floyd was loved, instead of feared and vilified and seen as less than human, he would still be here today, as would be Rayshard Brooks, Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, Daunte Wright, Tamir Rice, Ahmaud Arbery, and on and on.

A few days ago, I re-posted Some Of Us White People, the first post I wrote after the murder of George Floyd last year. I asked us to look within and without to acknowledge where we are in our continuity of acting to change what needs to be changed to make this country free and safe for Black people. I don’t think I can keep repeating that I hope each one of us is staying awake and aware and active as we move through the spaces we inhabit each day of our lives. Because the alternative is, we are allowing things to remain the same, and we will forever be mourning from a distance, the loss of Black lives at the hands of police officers, while we retreat in the comfort of our white life bubbles.

Tonight, and tomorrow, I will honor the memory of George Floyd, and the day after, and every day after that, stay awake and aware and active, and it is my hope that you will, too. It is the only way.

Accountability, Artivism and Action: Where Are You On The Continuum?

23 Apr

georgefloyd
George Floyd
Photo credit: Vanity Fair

The world was watching, and waiting, anxious, holding our collective breath, in hopes we could breathe again, if even for the one evening of Tuesday, April 20, 2021, the day the Derek Chauvin verdict came in.

Three counts of Guilty!

Relief, tears, breaths given for the ones George Floyd could no longer take–his life viciously taken by Chauvin last May. And we all watched it happen, only because brave 17 year-old, Darnella Frazier, recorded it, herself still pained that that’s all she could do. Yet, through her unwavering courage in bearing witness, the world saw what happened, and thankfully, the jury did it’s job to make Chauvin pay for his murder. Now we hold our breaths again to see what the judge’s sentencing will be.

Many have said this is not justice, it is accountability, and I agree. It’s not like this conviction means racism is ended. It doesn’t mean police brutality, use of excessive force, killings of unarmed and innocent Black people will end. It does not mean the system of policing, with its slave patrol origins, can be reformed without tearing the whole house down, and creating a new way of ensuring public safety in all of our communities.

As a white person who desperately wants a world where we all are free, I know this moment, most of all for me, doesn’t mean I can stop thinking about, or stop doing anything about ending racism in this country. And, I know it means that all of us white people have to stay doing something about it. I know I can’t just care about racism when I hear about yet another police shooting in the news, or someone I work with says something racist, even though those are times I must take action. As I always say here, I have to be thinking about, and acting every single day to break apart racism–whether it’s personal attacks, inequities in our communities in housing, schools, businesses, workplaces–or whether it’s policies and laws that uphold racism and privilege to people who look like me. I pray that we white people who were glued to our televisions on Tuesday evening, don’t go back to thinking it’s all good. It is hard for me to grasp the thought, conscious or not, of “if it doesn’t effect me, I don’t think about it, or do anything about it.” I remember the calls from Black friends and those speaking out against racism:”You must love Black children like they are your own” I remember what Darnella Frazier said when she was recording. She said when she saw George Floyd on the ground, helpless, she saw “my dad, my brothers, my cousins, my uncles, because they are all Black.”

And so why can’t we all say, especially when a person is on the receiving end of racism, whether a micro-aggression, a racial profiling incident, and most of all, when under threat of physical violence, why can’t we feel, and say to ourselves, I need to protect this person, because they are part of my family? And, every day, why can’t we self-examine, and be aware, and say why should I have access to this school, and the majority of people who don’t look like me are sitting in under-resourced schools, or, why do I get to have my voice heard, my ideas and perspectives centered in decision-making in this meeting, and why does almost everyone in upper administration look like me–where is the real inclusion?

I am not working across all these areas that I noted all of the time. One person cannot do it all. But we can find an area where we can do the work. Together we can all make a difference. We are part of the continuum of fighting for everyone to be free, and we have to keep on fighting.

If part of my way of doing the work is through my writing and my poetry, I know that I am just one of a vast number of artists who throughout history have used their art, and continue to use their work to reflect what is going on in the world, and who call to us to reflect, and take action. Call it art + activism, or artivism, it is definitely something that stirs my soul, and is an avenue that keeps me passionate about being part of the change to create a racially just world.

One of many local artists who inspire me to be a part of the fight against racism is Providence poet laureate, and playwright, Christopher Johnson. Christopher is in the process of workshopping his most current multi-discipline performance piece, which answers the asked and not so obvious unasked questions about race and racism. I was honored to be able to write about the workshop performance, Invoice For Emotional Labor, for Motif RI, which you can read about here. I invite you to think about the artists–visual artists, poets, dancers, actors, storytellers, musicians, writers, and the arts organizations, who inspire you, and who spur you to take action, and keep engaging in, and supporting their work. It will keep them creating, and keep us keeping on with the fight to make things right.

It can also help us build community, and not feel alone, or stuck in the thought of “but what can I do?..I am just one person..” We are all connected, and it is that realization, and acting like we are all connected, and all family, that will keep all of us alive, and well taken care of. I know that probably sounds naive, and Pollyanna, but is there any other way to get there?

I write daily poems on Facebook made up from my friends’ status updates. These poems, especially in times of chaos, horrific tragedy, and hate, help me make sense of what is happening, gives some order to my thoughts and feelings, and provides solace for my anxious, grieving heart. The poems, I always hope, in their documentation of the moment, honor all of the people who are grieving, and struggling with the same questions racing inside my brain.

This is the poem I created from my friends’ status updates on Tuesday, the day the verdict came in. Let us each day we wake up, ask ourselves who we are going to be today as we move through the world, and let us ask ourselves at the end of each day if we would want ourselves as a member of our own family? And remember each day who is a part of our family. (Hint: every one)

4/20/21

on pins and needles

it’s going to be

a long

30 minutes

it’s about to be

all the way on or

all the way off

george floyd is

21st century symbol

for 400 years of

lynchings and murders

come to a nexus

he represents

the thousands of

nameless, faceless,

unknown bodies that

lie decaying in

countless bogs, fields

and marshes

forgotten with

no headstones to

even mark

they ever existed

the verdict is in

guilty on all charges

I’m crying

the relief

god

guilty

all three charges

good!

but just a start

the people

have spoken

this is not justice

this is accountability

the whole system

is guilty

anybody else

emotionally exhausted

I wonder what the

verdict would’ve been

had the world not

been watching and

there was

no video

redesigning rooms in

a burning house

isn’t progress

I am thinking of

darnella frazier, a

17 year old girl

who had the courage

to film something that

was wrong

thank you to all

the bystanders who

bore witness to

this horrific tragedy

this didn’t happen

without you

blessed are those

who are

keepers of justice

this is justice for

my sons and yours

1 down and

countless others

to go

but his conviction is

no substitute for the

deep and deliberate

changes we need to

prevent further

police killings

and misconduct

makiyah bryant

I’m not black, but

I see the injustice

that you face daily

I’m not black, but

I will stand, kneel

& fight with you

justice would be

george floyd unharmed

please know

the difference

black men deserve

to grow old

“daddy changed

the world”

yes your dad

has definitely left a

historical mark

on this world

Thankful for Poem Contributors: Wendy, Christianne Warlick, Ronald Petty Jr., Warren Leach, Heather Parsons, Ntombi A. Peters, Jason Thompson, Kortez Artise, Sharlene Ebirim Downs, Ally Henny, Denitra Letrice, Michael Eaglin, Ulysses Prince, Angie Bannerman Ankoma, Orange Live, Innocence Project, Melissa Potter Laundry, Michael J. DiQuinzio Paintings, Patrice Jean-Philippe, Billy Porter, Johnny Washington Jr

Sources:

AMERICA RECKONS WITH RACIAL INJUSTICE
Darnella Frazier, Teen Who Filmed Floyd’s Murder, Praised For Making Verdict Possible
April l 21, 202111:15 AM ET by RACHEL TREISMANTwitter

Photo credit: Vanity Fair

Where Are All My White People At?

5 Mar

white-people-change-legacy-sign
Photo credit. wyso.org

A friend suggested I jot down 10 random questions on a sheet of paper, instead of simply sitting down and trying to think of what my next blog post should be about. The questions became prompts. Of course, the very last question was the one: Will us white people ever look in the mirror like author James Baldwin refers to in The Fire Next Time?

What Baldwin knew when he wrote that book in 1963, was that us white people did everything we could to avoid acknowledging anything to do with our own history, and our past and present behaviors. We didn’t, and we don’t, want to acknowledge how this country was not founded on the principle that “all men are created equal.” It instead was founded on stolen lives and violence, through slavery, and through stolen land and genocide of the Indigenous people of North America.

The made up construct of race, with a hierarchy of whiteness seen as superior, and everyone else as other, and inferior, was put into place in order to create and sustain the systems of power and oppression that exist to this day. We white people implemented Jim Crow laws which legalized segregation, and set up laws and policies that allowed white people to live where we wanted to live, obtain a job without worry of discrimination, go to well-resourced schools in our own neighborhoods, work where we wanted to work, conveniently shop where we wanted to shop, take out a business loan or home mortgage with fair interest rates, and take advantage of the GI bill to again, afford to buy a home in a “nice” neighborhood and get that mortgage. Over one million Black veterans at that time were shut out of having the same access and opportunity to those benefits which allowed white families to continue to build even more generational wealth through home ownership.

Yes, when various groups of immigrants arrived in America from Ireland, Italy, and Jews from Eastern Europe, we at first faced discrimination too. But we were allowed to “become white,” and were subsequently afforded all the privileges of those who were called white before us. We got to live The American Dream. We all believed the American motto and individualist myth, that if one just works hard enough, they can achieve whatever it is they want in this country, and if they don’t, it’s because of their own laziness, lack of ambition, and moral inferiority.

We kept, and sill try to keep Black and Brown people from voting. We started the War on Drugs, and allowed crack cocaine to flood Black communities, which led to the mass incarceration of Black men and women, while white men and women either were let go, or served much lighter sentences for the same offenses. We kept and keep corporate boardrooms white, and are more likely to pass over resumes with names that sound Black. We are good as long as our kids get to go to the diverse enough public schools in our neighborhoods, but don’t want to send our kids to under-resourced schools in neighborhoods we silently think of as “too diverse,” of low socio-economic status, unsafe, and inferior in their academics. We don’t blink an eye at how we so easily see ourselves represented in our movies, museums, magazines, teachers, neighbors, co-workers, and we don’t notice who is not included. We pat ourselves on the back for making our workspaces or schools more diverse, but don’t secede our power, or ways of whiteness, thereby not changing the culture, or ways of interrelating and opening up to all perspectives of seeing and deciding on things, and so these spaces stay bound to white supremacist culture and conditioning, and unwelcoming, and block advancement to those who are not white.

And we really, really don’t want to look in the mirror and see all of this, and we don’t want to look into our souls and find all of this history residing there. Even, if our families arrived here in post-slavery times, we have this dust in our souls, and we have all of the heavy footprints of colonization, and white supremacist systems, institutions, societal norms, privileges, and racialized thoughts and behaviors, in every step and breath that we take.

Which brings me to the present. Many of us in this country feel, now is a time of reckoning in regards to race and racism in this country. Many white people are finally waking up to the violence committed against Black men, women and children, primarily by police officers and self-appointed white vigilantes. We have finally heard the call of Black Lives Matter, which fell on our deaf ears for 400 years prior to Trayvon Martin’s murder in 2012. We are finally waking up to all the ways we have oppressed, and continue to oppress Black people in this country.

And so after I jotted down that question about looking in the mirror, I expanded upon it. I free-wrote: will us white people do the work ourselves to unpack our whiteness, heal our rage and trauma that has to do with the racial atrocities we committed, and will we acknowledge, and do the body work, healing work–break it all the way down with, as Resmaa Menakem advised us, with our own selves, and our own white “guru,” not a Black guru, or Indian guru, so that we can truly acknowledge, reconcile, heal and take part in creating a fair, just, equal, equitable, integrated society without white people above any more, but have us truly living side-by-side in society?

Now, I can’t claim to be all woke to therapist and author, Menakem’s work just yet, including his book, My Grandmother’s Hands, Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, because I am not. I just purchased his book, and have listened to him talk in two podcasts. His work focuses on internal generational racial trauma healing through not only working with our minds, but also somatically, through our bodies, where trauma resides. While listening to him, and you should listen, one of the things he said that stood out, was about how us white people really need to do our own healing, and that it has to be with us, and not, as I paraphrased above, by seeking out “Black or Indian gurus…” He went on to say this is going to take a lot of work, and take a long time, but that it must be done.

Which brings me to, doing the work. Where are all my white people at? I know a lot of us, as I’ve noted in recent posts, have been doing a lot of reading about the history of race and racism in this country, reading the works of Black authors–literary works, and works focusing on the work of anti-racism, as well as getting involved in racial justice community actions. I also continue to hear from fellow white people, and from Black and Brown people about white people, whether friends, or on social media, of us still posing the question of “what can I do?” or saying, “I should be doing more.”

Which brings me to: do the work.

Yes, I need to do the work. You, fellow white person, need to do the work. We all, all of us white people, need to do the work. And, what is the work? I’m just a middle-aged, white-skinned Jewish woman on a journey also trying to figure out what that means for me, for us. I am not a scholar, or expert to think I can tell you what to do and how to do it, but here are some thoughts and things I am doing, and striving to do.

The first thing we need to do is look in the mirror like James Baldwin didn’t hold onto hope that we could or would. We can’t do anything without acknowledging the reality of the totality of American history, and the violence and systems of oppression we created and continue to uphold.

Then, we can begin to educate ourselves, which many of us are finally starting to do through reading, and conversation. We have to be willing to get uncomfortable in the conversations we have with Black, Brown and Indigenous people, and to make mistakes, and allow ourselves to be corrected. We have to learn and practice not getting defensive, not over-apologizing, and not shedding white tears. We need to talk amongst ourselves, too, and hold one another accountable, and support one another in this work.

In considering all that needs to be done in educating ourselves, I was reminded of the ideas taught to me through teachers in the metalsmithing and woodworking classes I took, yet, I know this to ring true across all art forms. I remember my metals teacher especially, saying, as students we needed to learn and perfect our technique to the highest level, and then forget it, so that our authentic artistry and creativity could come through.

I believe we need to educate ourselves as fully as we can about racism, and about our own whiteness, and to deeply reflect on ourselves and the way we and those that came before us, have been moving through this world, and only then can we have the tools, and be in touch with our authentic selves, and be able to live the work of being fully human, take ourselves out of being white, and as world renowned author, poet, activist, and spiritual, transformational leader, Sonya Renee Taylor says, ” learn how to live in right relationship” with Black, Brown and Indigenous people in this country.

The Body Is Not An Apology author, Taylor, whose 2nd expanded edition I just purchased, beckons us to begin with “radical self-love.” Another book I am eager to read, I have gained much from following her on Instagram, and in listening to her conversation on the podcast, Eyes on Whiteness. Just the other day, I appreciated her talk on IG about white people taking responsibility. To put it in context, Sonya, who is American, just moved to New Zealand, after having previously split her time between there and the Bay area. I suppose after she announced her move this week, some white people chimed in to say they wish they too, could leave this country.

This talk came right on time for me. It seems lately I’m not only continually waking up to the ways of my own whiteness, but to the ways I have not taken responsibility, or done the work in other areas of my life. I’ve often been instant gratification girl. I want things to just happen. Like the time I urged my friend to send me the chanting meditation cd she had been listening to. A talented artist and poet, my friend had spent some time living in an ashram, practiced yoga, was doing her own spiritual work. She has always been a focused, intense, disciplined person. This was over ten years ago, but I remember her telling me that she was practicing the chanting while visualizing herself winning this poetry publication contest she submitted to. Well, she did win first place, and got her poetry book published. I can’t remember what I was hoping I’d win by possessing the cd, but I knew I just couldn’t get my hands on it fast enough. When it did finally arrive, I was thrilled. Now I’d be more spiritual, and more stuff in the universe would come to me. I don’t think I ever took the plastic wrapper off the cd set.

I say I want a lovely home, but don’t put in the time cleaning, painting, or de-cluttering. I say I want to be in love, but haven’t been consistent in making the effort to put myself out there, and to be fully present with the men I have met. Divorced for 8 1/2 years now, I know I sometimes hope that something magical will just happen, and I will live happily ever after. Cutting myself some slack along with all of you, for just trying to make it through this pandemic while working full-time at a psychiatric hospital, and hoping I’m holding up my two daughters’ spirits as they move through all of this too, I recently came to the revelation of still needing to put in some energy and effort. I need to do some work reckoning with my past, and open myself up to be able to give and receive love, so I can move forward and be present to the possibility of having a relationship. I am certain I will also need to practice the radical self-love that Sonya Renee Taylor speaks of to find my way in this.

See my pattern, and what I’m getting at? These things are much lighter than doing the work of breaking down racism, but I bring them up because we have to be willing to do the work. It will not be easy. We will not achieve enlightenment, or rewards, for doing the work we should have been doing since we first arrived in this country. But it is our responsibility.

In Sonya Renee Taylor’s talk, she said that some white people think, “the responsibility for solving issues of white supremacy delusion is on Black people’s shoulders.” She went on to say that it is white people’s responsibility to fix this. We created it. We need to figure out how to fix it, and fix it. She also said, that we have the “inhumane luxury” to propose to Black people that they make their needs or demands in a way that is comfortable to us–that we want it said in a certain way, a way that can’t sound angry–that we try and get away with simply having hope. That we say things like “I believe in the possibility of change,” but then do nothing. Or we say, “its too hard, or too slow, or too depressing.” Ultimately, as I shared above, Taylor says, our responsibility is to “make right relationship” with Black, Brown and Indigenous people here in America. We don’t, as Taylor says, just get to, up and leave America because we don’t like it here, and let racism and its systems of oppression continue to fester and rule, and then go run off to some other country where we can continue to live out our exploitive, gentrifying, white supremacist ways in other lands.

It is interesting to me that both Sonya Renee Taylor’s and Resmaa Menakan’s books relate to working to liberate ourselves through working with our bodies. As someone much more in tune with my emotions and instincts–heart over head–I am looking forward to taking my time with both of these important works.

We won’t fix racism or cure ourselves of our whiteness overnight, but we can’t afford to take any more time to start doing the work of fixing ourselves, and undoing racism and racist systems. We can’t wait until we think we know everything. We will never know everything. This is a journey, and we need to, if we haven’t already started, to start right now. Educate ourselves, and be hypervigilant about how whiteness is operating within ourselves, within other people, and within the spaces we find ourselves in.

Have the uncomfortable conversations. Make mistakes. Accept responsibility. Strive to do better next time. Speak up at your child’s school when you see how the white-led PTO is not including the voices, concerns, and desires of parents of color. Speak up at your workplace when your white co-worker makes a micro-aggression, or note the fact your non-profit organization’s administrators and board of directors does not include anyone representative of the community you serve. Get to know who the Black leaders in your community are. Find out ways you can support Black leaders, and Black-led organizations, without being a burden by asking them to tell you exactly what you should do. Share resources, either dollars, volunteering of time and/or skills, and show up at community events. Find out what the voting rights are like in your community, and get involved if things need to change for the better. Join an activist organization like Standing Up For Racial Justice, a movement of white people who come together to learn about racism, activism, whiteness, and fight for racial justice. There is so much we can, and need to do. There is so much we must do.

Are you ready? Where are all my white people at? Will you join me? May I join you?

Welcome to 2021, Or: When Privilege is Handed to you on a Silver Platter, And No, We’re Not Better Than This

11 Jan

the-daily-don-blm-maga-image
The Daily Don BLM MAGA illustration by Jesse Duquette
Illustration Credit: Jesse Duquette, IG @the.daily.don

I am not a political pundit, and am not going to analyze the week’s event that we all witnessed with our own unbelievin’, yet believin’ eyes. There have been enough news shows and articles for that.

I will be another person, though, to call attention to the great disparities in how Black people, and their multi-racial, multi-ethnic supporters, were treated this summer during protests calling for racial justice, equality, and the very basic human request to not be shot and killed–mostly by police officers, and sometimes by white vigilantes, simply because of their skin tone. I’m quite certain, too, that many men and women who fancy themselves vigilantes like the white father and son duo who killed Ahmaud Arbery, were in the crowd that showed up at the capitol this week to “take their country back.”

We saw it with our own eyes on video, and on the news, and yet, Roots drummer, dj, author, food and culture enthusiast, Questlove, in an Instagram post, had something to say about the statement that so many in our country would rather believe in, namely: “this is not who we are.”

Questlove says, “It’s no coincidence the unpacking of our lives is going down this way (this instance, the events in dc, the pandemic, BLM, MeToo–everything that has risen to the surface in the past 5 years–I know a lot of people wanna hang on to the common thread of “this isn’t who we are” or “we are better than this” “A lot of you have to ponder & rephrase it now.. “This is who we’ve been?”…”Can you imagine what went unchecked without the cell phone camera? This didn’t just start now…or 2011…or back in 91 w Rodney King…..this has BEEN going on & no one believed it.”

Questlove’s Instagram post was actually in response to the viral video of Miya Ponsetto, the white woman who physically attacked jazz musician, Keyon Harrold’s, 14 year-old son, accusing him as the person who stole her cell phone. Ponsetto singled out Mr. Harrold and his son, who are Black, as they simply walked through the lobby of their Soho hotel to go have brunch. The phone, turns out, was actually left in an Uber.

But, as Questlove shares, this same belief he sees so many falsely holding, was shared by countless people posting all over social media that “this is not who we are” after watching the January 6th domestic terrorist attack on the capitol. We can apply the “this is not our country,” to this most recent ‘Karen’ moment, or to the storming of our nation’s capitol, and we certainly have been applying it for years, decades, centuries, haven’t we? Those of us with white skin privilege who believed the myth we were taught of how our great country was founded, of how our democracy was for all of us. We want to believe we are better than what keeps playing on the screens in front of our own eyes. But if that were the case, wouldn’t we be behaving like we are better than this? Wouldn’t we have made things equal, equitable and safe for every one through the ages?

Wouldn’t we be doing something to change things since the notion “that all men are created equal” was never carried out in law or deed? We witnessed how giving up power and privilege is so damn frightening for the white warrior face-painted, Davey Crockett meets neo-Viking, fur hat wearing, confederate flag waving, heavily-armed men, and women, who stormed the capitol. We witnessed hundreds of these white folks descend upon the capitol building, break in through a window, be let in by politicians, take selfies with capitol police, without the presence of the National Guard or police in riot gear. Friend, Gloria Johnson, a risk analyst, and strong advocate for her community who sits on several non-profit boards, said, on social media, contrasting January 6th’s insurgence with the uprising for racial justice after George Floyd’s murder, “protestors this past summer were beaten, gassed and hit with rubber bullets for protesting and yet these mofos were allowed to get into the SENATE CHAMBERS…without being beaten, gassed or shot! Nothing…Clearly restraint can be used by law enforcement”…She added, “…white supremacy is a hell of a drug..” after witnessing the insurgents “just chillin in the senate chambers…”

That about says it all. We don’t need pundits to tell us what we saw. If we, in the words of James Baldwin, which always come to me the strongest in these moments, look in the mirror, we will see that it is us, white people, who are the violent ones, the oppressors, who founded this country on white supremacist notions, laws, and policies, overt and covert, for over 400 years. We saw that when Black people asked this summer to be treated like human beings and their right to live and thrive like everyone else in this country, instead of as a monolithic, faceless group to be feared and harmed, they are met with violence. We saw when white people, armed with guns and zip ties, force themselves into the nation’s capitol building in an attempt to overthrow democracy, that they are given carte blanche to roam the halls, make violent threats, and desecrate property, all aided and abetted by the President and some of the capitol police officers there–never mind the fact that there were a number of police officers, former military, and government officials who were part of the insurgent mob themselves.

We witnessed the fear of all of these white men and women losing the grip on what they believe their white country does for them. They fear being in the minority by number, and by privileges, real and perceived, they have always benefitted from, either without caring what happened to Black or brown people in this country, or with the will to do great harm to them.

I plead for all of us white people to see that this is who we are, and to every day do something about it. We can no longer believe we are better than this. We have to do the work to make where we are in each one of our very own communities a safe, just, equitable and free place for Black people. This is our call. A new President will not fix this. It is on us. If you don’t know where to begin, as I’ve said before, look around in your workplace, your neighborhood, your schools, your non-profit organizations, at your elected officials. Are these places equitable and just and inclusive? Who is in charge? Who has the power to make decisions? Do your elected officials represent the needs of all people? Connect with and listen to the Black leaders in your community. Listen to Black women. Think of ways you can support them and their work, and ask them if your ideas to support are okay, are necessary, or are something that isn’t needed, or off-base, or white savior patronizing. If you feel stuck, comment below, or message me. I am no expert. I am on this journey, just like you are, but if we keep saying we don’t know what to do, then we are the biggest part of the problem.

It’s 2021. Who is ready to change who we are?

____________________________________________________________________________

Illustration Credit: Jesse Duquette, IG: @the.daily.don Twitter: @JRDuquette

Facebook: The Daily Don

Follow Questlove: IG: @Questlove @qls @questlovesfood

Wendy Jane Soul Shake 2020 Year in Review

28 Dec

Jacques-and-Nafis-Care-Prints-Project-2020
Dr. Fauci John Lewis
Dr. Fauci, John Lewis Street Art, NYC, August 2020

Every year at this time I write a year-end recap of the blog, and the times we are in. But how in the heck am I supposed to summarize this year? Nevertheless, I’ll try.

I began the 2020 WJSS blog with February’s post, Tell Me The Truth: Exploring The Heart of Cross-Racial Conversations with Shay Stewart-Bouley and Debby Irving, The afore-mentioned title was a public discussion at a Connecticut community center, between, Shay Stewart-Bouley, racial justice and equity non-profit executive director, writer, activist, and author of the blog, Black Girl in Maine, and Debby Irving, racial justice educator and activist, and author of the book, Waking Up White. I have followed both women for some years now, and it was good to hear them continuing to grow and share their dialogue on what it takes to stay open and honest in cross-racial conversations and friendships. There we sat, hundreds of us, elbow-to-elbow, in rows of folding chairs, taken in by their talk. How could we have known that within a month, our country would be thrown into lockdown over a global pandemic–the Covid-19 virus–and that such large gatherings would be prohibited, and that our facial expressions would soon be hidden under masks?

But racism doesn’t stop due to a virus, and in April and May I wrote Let Us Not Forget Racism In The Time Of Covid-19, and Conspiracy Theories, Freedom, Mirrors: What Reality Are We Running From. In these posts, I drew attention to the reports of how the virus was impacting Black and Brown and Indigenous individuals and communities, at a much higher rate than white people and their communities, due to our country’s history of racism–both bigotry, and systemic. This history and the policies and laws born out of it, created inadequate and less accessible healthcare for Black and Brown communities. In addition, we have seen how some Black people seeking care for Covid symptoms have been mistrusted, and dismissed, and their treatment mishandled, which even resulted in some cases, in death. Also, noted, was the higher number of essential workers of color who don’t have the luxury to work remotely, thereby creating risk of exposure for themselves, their families, and their neighborhoods.

In Conspiracy Theories, Freedom, Mirrors..., I held up a mirror to how I believe it’s racist when white people call the virus a hoax, and government’s way of trying to control us, and hurt our economy. Knowing how the virus has a lesser impact on white communities–even though there are countless, white people dying from it, too–having a belief in a conspiracy theory and government control is harmful to Black, Brown and Indigenous people. To put these communities at risk because of your selfish wish to have a haircut, is simply racist. I wished instead that we could be thinking of how instead of going back to what we were, to the way things were–to wishing you could go back and hide in the comfort of Starbucks and your gym routine–that we could be forging a new way of being, and caring for ourselves, and others.

At the same time these conspiracy theories were roiling, the signaling of a renewed racial justice movement rumbled beneath the surface with the release of the video in early May, showing the February killing of Ahmaud Arbery by two white neighbors, while Ahmaud was out for a jog.

And, then, on May 25, 2020, Minneapolis resident, George Floyd, was murdered by police officer, Derek Chauvin, following the arrest of Mr. Floyd for possibly passing a counterfeit twenty dollar bill at a convenience store. The world watched the horrid act of the officer pressing his knee into George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, of Mr. Floyd’s pleading for his life, and calling out for his mother in his last moments of life. We know this because of the bravery of seventeen year-old, Darnella Frazier, who was in the crowd of onlookers yelling to Chauvin, and other officers present, for Chauvin to get off of George Floyd, to no avail. Ms. Frazier’s video showed the world the truth and horror of what happened to George Floyd that day. It held up a mirror to our country to say, especially to white people, we can no longer say this is not happening. We can no longer say, “he should have complied.” We can no longer say, “the officers are just doing their job, and defending their own safety.”

Shortly after this national tragedy that reverberated around the world, there was a new wave of uprisings–a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, this time with many more white people finally waking up, and now, joining in the call for racial justice. I was inspired by what I was witnessing around me, in particular, the young Black leaders, many still in their teens, leading their own city’s marches, using their voices, loud and strong, to let us know we are truly at a time of racial reckoning in this country. In response to these feelings, I wrote, Youth-Led Protest, Falling Into The (Donut) Hole of Trying To Enlighten Those Inflicted With Blindness To Their Racism And A Big Thank You To The Artists Who Do The Spiritual Lifting.

BLM March in tribute to George Floyd, Providence, RI, June 2020

While I was hopeful and inspired about the fight for racial justice being rebirthed, The Falling Into The (Donut) Hole part of the title of that post (and I might be famous for writing the world’s longest blog titles) referred to the extreme anger I also felt when seeing social media posts, and hearing conversations by some co-workers of mine. Their comments showed they still weren’t getting it, and at this point, it is a willful not getting it, as far as I’m concerned. Posts about “riots” and “looting” and “destroying their own neighborhoods.” Posts with the meme that says something like, “…if you don’t want trouble with the police, then don’t do things that are illegal.” I engaged with some of these posts because they are racist. And while I didn’t want to project, and I am no white savior, I thought if it was hard for me to look these co-workers in the eye and work alongside of them, I imagined the harm it would also be causing for my co-workers who are Black. I did my, try every angle of presenting facts, trying, with kindness to ask for, to look for an empathetic bone in the offenders’ bodies, all the while knowing I wasn’t going to change their point of view. I took action, but shortly after this time, decided I would not engage any more with these social media posts, and would put my energy to better use.

During this time of feeling sadness, anger, and a will to keep fighting for what is right, I was grateful, and stay grateful for the artists of our time, who always hold up a mirror to what is happening, and who show us what love looks like. The artists in my city of Providence, Rhode Island–Black artists, Latinx artists, Indigenous artists, Asian Artists, white artists, came together to create protest posters, and gorgeous street murals. They showed us what solidarity, and hope, and resilience looks like.

Providence artists create street murals for downtown business district, June 2020

This also became a time to reflect on what it means to be white, and to see how our whiteness and white supremacy operates and how we have been programmed to believe what we believe about ourselves, and about those who we “other.’ With Some Of Us White People, I attempted to imagine all the various ways we white people were feeling, thinking, and behaving in the wake of the George Floyd killing, the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, the June killing of Rayshard Brooks by a police officer in Atlanta, and the call for justice to charge the police officers responsible for the killing of Breonna Taylor.

All the books on race we were buying, the films we were watching, the conversations we were having, the marches we were attending, the t-shirts we were sporting, all in the name of trying to catch up and educate ourselves, and finally start to learn and believe a portion of the things that Black people in this country have been trying to tell us for centuries, and to do something about it. All the ways we gingerly, or not so gingerly, asked Black people how to help, or, ask if they were okay, when on a daily basis, we heard the refrain of many Black people saying, “I am not okay.”

At this time, I got to write two articles for local, Motif Magazine, Be Of Service, 5 Do’s and Don’t’s for White People Taking Anti-Racist Action and A Surge In Activism, Activist Groups Help White People Show Up The Right Way. Motif, like many individuals, businesses, arts spaces and journalism outlets, was also looking to give attention to the current fight for racial justice. It was my friend, Christopher Johnson, who encouraged me to write the articles. Christopher, who is Black, is a poet, and playwright. His most recent work, Invoice For Emotional Labor, centers on the idea that he shouldn’t have to educate white people about racism, but in his experiential, cutting words, he does just that. While I have been to readings of the work-in-progress, I can’t wait to see this play performed in its entirety.

I have not mentioned much here about the in-between spaces of dealing with this year, and haven’t ever gotten too much into my personal life here beyond my experiences with dealing with matters of race. But I alluded to it in How To Hang In There: Today Baratunde Thurston’s Podcast, How To Citizen, Helped. In this piece, I spoke about knowing how we all have our burden to bear in life, and in this year, in particular, as we deal with a global pandemic, a call for our country to face its true history, and deal with our racial reckoning, reparations, and healing.

This year has impacted each and every one of us in all kinds of ways. I know some of you might be feeling the burden of being a parent who all of a sudden has to become an assistant teacher while your young child does their online schooling, and, figure out how to work from home at the same time. That teachers are working extremely hard to teach simultaneously in the classroom, and online, and worry, too, about exposure to the virus for themselves, and their students. That some of you are feeling isolated by working remotely. That some of you are trying to pay your bills as a small business owner, when your business isn’t able to operate at full capacity, or at all. That some of you are out of work. That some of you are trying to stay connected and care for an elderly parent with visiting restrictions in place, and that some of you worry about exposing immune-compromised loved ones. Some of you have to work in grocery stores, in public transportation, and other businesses with high volumes of person-to-person contact, and have never had a break. That some of you have lost some one you loved, or multiple people that you loved. That some of you work in hospitals–nurses, doctors, housekeepers, dietary workers–and are seeing far too much of death, and experiencing trauma and stress from all that you are witnessing while working countless days, hours, months, trying to save lives, and maintain a safe hospital environment.

And in all of this I am reminded of the words of local community activist, Pilar McCloud. In this post, Pilar spoke of how many people in the Black community have always had to struggle and work through adversities and obstacles due to bigotry, and systems of racism. She sees how this pandemic is just another thing for Black people to work through, and finds it interesting how more white people are finally getting to see what struggle feels like, with the pandemic, and their new awakening to racial injustice.

As for me, I work as an Activities Therapist at a psychiatric hospital, and run groups with patients on an Adult Intensive Treatment inpatient unit. Because of that, I have stayed working full-time in person, and while it is not dealing with the same kind of intense stress and trauma of working in a medical hospital, it has felt stressful at times to me, and I know it has to my co-workers. I am grateful I still have a full-time job that gives me structure, provides me with a daily purpose, and ensures that I can continue to have an income. I love working with our patients. I have amazing, compassionate, co-workers, and we pull one another up, mostly with humor, especially at the times we need to laugh, so we don’t cry.

But our patients are in emotional distress. The pandemic has exacerbated their depression, their anxiety, their paranoia, their mania, their feelings of isolation, and their psychosis. Trying to get our patients, who share a common milieu space, when they are at various levels of awareness, psychosis, and, or paranoia, to wear their masks, and to social distance, is trying, to say the least. To keep constant vigilance of possible patient and staff exposure, and get updates on actual staff and patients who have contracted the virus, especially on one’s own unit or area, is unsettling. To try to support people suffering more during this global pandemic, while we ourselves are suffering, can also be challenging.

In another capacity at work, I am the Coordinator of the hospital’s Healing Arts program. Started by my former supervisor, Barbara Ostrove, who was director of our Occupational Therapy Department, I, along with support primarily, from fellow staff member, Occupational Therapist, and artist, Laura White Carpenter, write grants, and develop and coordinate arts programming for our patients and staff in the form of artist residencies, exhibitions, and special events, all utilizing the arts to promote wellness and healing, and to humanize the hospital experience, and environment. This fall, we were supposed to have one of our past resident artists, violist, Ashley Frith, do an artist residency, but that was not to be with the virus. We are trying to hold off a bit for her to be able to come in person to connect with our patients in an interactive group format, as well as to offer some relief for our staff through performance and conversation. If that is not possible, we will have to think of possibly doing a live or recorded video residency, something we are hoping to avoid, as we feel it’s not the same experience. We may create an entirely different kind of residency experience all together. We shall see.

Still in the early months of the pandemic, I tried to be all heroic, and Laura and I did sidewalk chalk art murals outside our hospital’s entrance–brightly-hued florals and hearts, with words of thanks–which were greatly appreciated by staff. I was lucky to connect with local artists, Jacques Bidon and Nafis White, who so thoughtfully made beautiful handmade prints and thank you card sets that they distributed to three local hospitals’ essenttial workers. At our hospital, we received 100 print sets which we were able to distribute to our entire housekeeping staff, to our Patient Assessment Services (emergency room) staff, and to the staff taking care of our geriatric and dementia patients on our Senior Specialty unit. I also was able to procure a grant of three Amazon music loaded tablets for our inpatient units to use from the non-profit organization, Musicians On Call. We see how much music helps our patients to feel calm, connected, and energized, and so we were grateful to be granted the tablets.

Artists, Nafis White and Jacques Bidon and their Care Print packages for essential workers

Yet, after this initial burst of energy to use the arts to help us get through this time, I came to a standstill. These days I often feel like I’m this high functioning depressed person, just getting by each day, and not delivering the kind of care and attention I should be to our patients. I cannot bring myself to come up with another arts thing to give to patients and staff. It’s a Catch-22. This is exactly the time the arts can help us, and it is what I preach. I see how many artists, locally, and nation-wide are still showing up, and making the best of these times, and lifting us up with their work, yet I am unable to move myself to action.

Laura, Healing Arts Program, Chalk Art honoring our fellow frontline workers
me, Chalk Art for our fellow frontline workers, May 2020
The truth, May 2020

I say all this, not to get off-topic, or to get attention or sympathy. I say this because it is real, with this time we are in, and each and every one of us, I know, has their own story of how this time is impacting them, and how they are managing. I also acknowledge that feeling ungrounded with all that is going on has made me feel scattered, unable to commit and follow through at times when it has come to continuing the daily, long-term work of fighting to break down racism and the racist systems we live in. I touch upon these themes in the Baratunde Thurston post, even though I haven’t ended up following through to continue to listen to his podcast beyond another episode or two. I hope that you are able to acknowledge how you are feeling and are able to share that with someone, and I invite you to please feel free to share here below, how you have been managing during this year of Covid-19, and this time of a critical call for us to finally face our dire need for racial reckoning in this country.

Still, we all manage to carry on in some way. It is not all gloom. Yes, there are moments of joy, too, that appear for me, and I truly hope for you, too.

Getting to visit NYC with my daughters-surreal in its emptiness, but still loved

Our beautiful New England fall still came, and yet without the news of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks and Breonna Taylor, daily filling our newsfeed anymore, I worried that many white folks were forgetting about the fight they so vehemently said they were there for in June. With covid fatigue, and racial justice warrior fatigue in mind, I wrote, Fighting Racism Got You Down? Don’t Make Those Brunch Reservations Just Yet. I worried that so many of us who were waiting for the Presidential election, with hopes that we could oust the current one, would, once that happened, think all was well.

We do hold hopes the new President, will in January, begin to undo all of the evil policies and legislation put into place that hurt mostly Black, Brown, and Indigenous people, as well as our immigrant community. Yet, the post warns us to stay vigilant, and to keep fighting, and to not let things go back to the status quo. It asks white folks to not just rest easy, because the blatant hate is gone, and we are being taken care of again. It asks us to not forget our privilege, or the will to make things truly equal for every one, to include everyone, on not a hierarchal level, with white people at the top, but one where we are all together, side-by-side. (My August 2019 post, Every Day, Chip Away at De-Centering Whiteness speaks to this in more detail)

While I was able to, though more sporadically, keep writing this year, I got stuck in my own head, thinking I was real special, and developed a case of the white fragility. In, What I Didn’t Want To Share, Or: If This White (Jewish) Woman Went To Confession, This Is What She’d Say, you can read all about my bout with thinking as a white person, I should step back from writing about race, and how still after so much time of writing about race, and educating myself and doing anti-racism work, I still worry way too much about saying or doing the wrong thing in my cross-racial conversations and actions. Thankfully, through friends, Black and white, who help give me perspective on this, I carry on, striving to not worry what others will think, ready to engage in the conversations that come up because of my writing or dialogue, and take responsibility for what my impact is. I am also thankful for friend, and racial justice activist, Joan Wyand, who shared about the new podcast Eyes On Whiteness, which helps me look at how whiteness operates within me, and others, and the world around me. It’s truly helpful, and I highly recommend it.

In my most recent post, Catching Back Up With Artist Kenya (Robinson) And The Luck, Or Lesson Of, Finding What You Seek, written right before Thanksgiving, I share part of an older post never published about an encounter with visiting Florida artist, Kenya (Robinson) who gave a talk at the Providence Public Library for the exhibition, HairBrained. I follow Kenya on Instagram now, and in November, was lucky to catch an IGTV video she made on what she, as a Black artist, noticed was a passive-aggressive style of communication she was encountering, with white women. I was moved by Kenya’s thoughts, and desire to share with those of us listening, how to use our own inner creativity to ‘hack’ these conversations to be able to communicate authentically, and move beyond the way we’ve been programmed for survival with all of our ‘isms, and in doing so, create a new pathway to tap into our true inner energy where we are all the same.

In my blog post title, I use the word ‘luck,’ but when Kenya in her video held up her fortune cookie fortune which said, ‘If you seek it, you shall find it,” she emphasized that there are no coincidences, and so my happening upon her talk that day was meant to be, and I am grateful for the lesson, and the reconnection to both Kenya, and her important work. You can follow her at www.privilegeasplastic.com and on IG @kenya9.

Which makes me think about the word intention, as my year of 2020 blogging comes to an end, and this challenging year is about to wrap up. I have been challenged to keep the things in my life that I say are important to me–continuing the work required to bring about racial justice, equality and freedom, being present in the way I want to be for my two daughters, for my friends, and for my family, being present and giving better energy to serving our patients in my workplace, delivering more Healing Arts programming in my workplace, and opening myself up to the possibility of loving, and letting myself be loved in a romantic relationship.

I know we all have our lists, and that mine is probably sounding just like any New Year’s Eve Resolutions list. Yet, I hope not. I know I can be gentle with myself at this time, and not get down on myself for the things I feel I can’t muster the energy for. I hope you will, too. I also know, as is quoted often in this work of racial justice, in the words of Dr. King, that “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I know that I won’t give up the work, and that the work started long before this time we are here on earth, and will continue long after we are gone, and each thing we can do, every day contributes to making things better for all of us. I know that we can make this new post-covid world a better place for all, and not go back to our ways that don’t make a way for all of us, but just for a few of us. I know we can do this. I know we must. I pray that we are not in a rush to get back to ‘regular life’ where we are all about having to make enough money so we can consume things that make us feel comfortable, and fool ourselves into believing everything is all right, forgetting the valuable lessons about what matters to us, is us. All of us. Not just some of us. All of us.

This year, in particular, I thank you all from the bottom of my heart for your support, for engaging with me, and with one another about how race, racism, whiteness, cross-racial connection, and the work of breaking down racism and racist systems shows up in you, and what you are doing about it. I wish you the will to keep doing the work to make the spaces where you are, free and equal, truly equal and equitable, with all perspectives honored and included, and with whiteness de-centered, and not above any other perspective. I wish each one of you, peace, continued good health, safety. I wish you joy.

Catching Back Up With Artist, Kenya (Robinson), And The Luck, Or Lesson Of, Finding What You Seek

20 Nov

Robinson-Kenya-Headshot-September2020
Artist, Kenya (Robinson)

“We can’t just jump into one another’s lives, and expect to know each other right away…”

That was artist, Kenya (Robinson), at the pre-reception for her lecture at the Providence Public Library’s HairBrained Exhibition, held in 2018. HairBrained was a look at the ways in which hair defines and reflects culture, self-identity, agency, and politics. Kenya’s talk, as stated in the library’s announcement, “offered a critical analysis of blondness, baldness, and beauty related to our collective hair politic, identification of gender, and normalization of whiteness.”

A small group of mostly white women stood around the oak library desk used to display a variety of blond hair bundles, which included: two-inch snippets of corn-silk smooth locks tied at their tops with elastic bands, long, textured ponytails with combs provided nearby, and a wooden hand-mop whose bristles were replaced with lengths of bleach blond hair. Kenya, who reminded me of how artists so well model the example of dress as self-expression, and whose outfit I envied, wore a white cowboy shirt with fuchsia fringe, similarly colored-velvety leggings, and high-heeled, sleek ankle boots. She did not have,  or wear, as we’d later learn of Kenya’s penchant for wigs, blond hair, but instead sported a short, natural style. Her comment about jumping into another’s life was in response to a woman who was yanking at one of the textured ponytail with a comb, creating a snarl midway through that seemed to be impossible to comb out.

“If that hair was attached to your child’s head, you wouldn’t be tugging on it that way. That would hurt, right? With our hair, we start at the bottom, and hold the hair above the snarl so that the person doesn’t feel the pain..well, sometimes people do pull like that, and the child complains, but you get what I mean?” Kenya said to the woman. The woman acknowledged Kenya’s comments, and moment of education, and re-arranged her grip on the ponytail and carried on with less resistance.

I attended Kenya’s talk and was struck how she managed, aside from her endearing vulnerability and sense of humor, which was a gift in itself, to ask us to think about inclusion, exclusion, racism, gender, and all the other “isms” as Kenya called them, without necessarily naming them. Instead, she challenged us to believe someone when they shared their lived experience with you. And, by the existence of her work dissecting “blondness,” and in turn, femininity, gender and racial identity, she asked others to see her and her work for what it is, and not through the gaze of gender or race. Kenya shared there were, and still are times where she has felt literally rendered voiceless, or her work not seen as intended, because of her gender (she did not clearly say, also because of her race) until she erased herself out of it. I cannot do Kenya, or the experience of her talk, as well as her work justice, but please know, that I was deeply moved and inspired by it, and thank her for that.

Another event I attended was Dr. Quincy Mills‘ talk which focused on the book he wrote on the history of Black barber shops from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Cutting Along the Color Line: Black Barbers and Barber Shops in America. Dr. Mills is currently Associate Professor of History at the University of Maryland. I learned how black barbers during slavery and shortly after emancipation, were employed to service white men with shaves and cuts, as white men liked to have their domestic services performed by black men and women, and as the role of the barber was looked at as too inferior a service for a white men to perform. Mills also asked us to look at the fact, in allowing black men to be their barbers, they had to trust that an enslaved, or freed man with a razor blade in his hand, was still inferior, in order to dismiss any internal inkling that he would ever consider slitting the throat of the very man that once enslaved him.

We learned of the prominent black barber, George Meyer who served President McKinley, and how doing so, made him a central figure in Republican politics, as he was seen as a gateway to the political office, and the associated favors that came with voting the President in. Of course, white clientele in the newly developing Jim Crow laws years didn’t want to sit side-by-side with black men, who they considered less than them, so black men were shut out from black-owned barber shops, until black barbers started to open shops in black communities beginning in the 1920’s and 1930’s. With the Depression era upon them, the black-owned barber shops became a space that was much more than a place to get a haircut and a shave, but a free, public space, or cultural center, where the politics of the day could be spoken about without worry, pass the time talking about the joys and struggles of daily life, and coming-of-age life lessons for young black boys.

Aside from the great interest I had in learning about the history of the shops, Dr. Mill’s talk brought back to the surface for me the time I spent working in a black-owned barber shop and salon in Boston in 1980-81. In a city, highly segregated, and rife with racial tension at the time, Danny’s His and Hers Salon was situated on Massachusetts Avenue, in between the bordering black neighborhood of Roxbury, and the more affluent, white neighborhood, the Back Bay. I got to experience firsthand the cultural space and conversation that Dr. Mills speaks of in his book, and from the customers’ perspective, too. I wrote a little about that experience in the 2012 post, Black Beauty Back In The Day: What I Learned About Jheri Curls From The Grown-Ups, And Interracial Marriage From A 5-Year Old.

As I revisited this piece, I see how much there would still be to say about the social atmosphere of this space, as well as how I’ve grown to more understand the how and the why of the much deeper, necessary teachings about the relationship between black men and white woman that showed up that day in the presence of a five year-old Black boy who was a teacher I did not yet fully recognize as such.

Kathy, me, Kim at Danny’s His and Hers Salon, 1981. Where I learned more than a backgammon lesson from the 5 year-old boy noted above

Inspired by this artist and scholar, I had to attend to my own craft. I went to the HairBrained writing workshop led by local writer, Mary Kim Arnold, and had lunch afterward with my writer/artist friends. I was reminded how artists really break down life, and their experiences, and even though I suppose I do that very thing in my writing, when in conversation, I always feel much more surface and superficial, and much less of a critical thinker when I hear my friends’ critical thinking, reflections and making meaning of an experience–whether it be a book, movie, art exhibition, or the writing workshop we just attended.

In reflecting on making meaning, and understanding myself better as a white woman with a strong desire to connect across race, and to be able to communicate without over-analyzing, or worrying about how I’m coming across, which gets in the way of being myself, and in the way of a true connection, I reconnected last week with Kenya (Robinson)’s work, this time, on Instagram. I listened to her video, titled, WHITE BITCHES IS CRAZY (or the creativity of passive aggressive language) Another tool for hacking the IZM

In this video, Kenya shared on the concept of the lexicon of passive aggressive language, and in particular, on her experiences with this language exchange with white women, both recently, and in her past. These experiences, she said, left her at first confused, unaware it was happening, or knew and sometimes would let go, but, most often, got her mad.

Kenya began by making it clear, with what she called her “pure positive love energy miracle tone healing music” playing in the background,  that her aim in this talk was to approach these lexicons as a language which we are acculturated into, and to personally, get away from a judging framework, so that her vibration and energy can stay high, and won’t get trapped in judging, which brings her energy down. Kenya generously wanted to share the tools of creativity with others, so they could use them to hack these languages, and have the ability to open up to the infinite creative possibilities that lie within us.

Kenya looked at the etymology of the words, passive and aggressive. She shared how while Black people’s style of communication is said to be ‘real’ or ‘authentic,’ as if it is compelled to be so due to feeling safe or comfortable, it is actually a tool of survival, learned by always being surveilled, being watched, so that Black people feel they need to respond, to give answers, to be reporters.  It is an acculturation learned as a response to a stressor; a survival tool. White women, in their closeness to white patriarchy, are acculturated to conform their communication in response to the stressor of patriarchy, yet Kenya wanted to also be careful to not  give all credit to that idea because it can get in the way of the creative possibilities that can come from the investigation, dissecting, and understanding of this behavior, which is more complex than stemming from a single source

Kenya believes by working within that middle space between the dichotomy of passive and aggressive, and understanding how acculturation of Black people’s and white people’s lived experiences under the framework of all the isms, impacts our language and styles of communication, we can practice using creativity to hack our communication, instead of the survival technique which we were programmed to use. This will open up tremendous possibilities for connection, and to those places inside of us where our cores, our entity, our energy, is the same, and where we can learn and grow and help one another.

I listened to her talk twice to absorb and process all that she said, and will listen to it again, I’m sure, to have it soak in even more. There is definitely more detail about how and why passive aggressive communication shows up, about our inner and outer racialized “programming” and how to creatively hack our communication, so I encourage you to listen, one, two, three, or however many times you wish to so that you, too, can learn and grow through Kenya’s offering.

 I know for myself, as a white woman who has always considered herself definitely passive, and indirect in my communications with others, I have not considered the impact, and the how, when, where, and why, of my own passive or passive aggressive style of communication with Black women or men. I will here on in, be alert to this, and as Kenya asks us, will begin with the outer creative hack every time, and the longer term inner-programming of acculturation under all the isms, every day, every time. That is the only way to open up creative possibilities, to open up a new way of being together in this world.

Kenya finished by saying that in practicing this creative language hacking tool, she, and we, can be responsible and active in our communications, and she finds when she doesn’t allow this passive aggressive communication to be heaped upon her, to burden her, she feels more power, and more energy and positivity, which allows her to be more creative, and more engaged with her creative process.

To put it more beautifully, I will share the closing words of Kenya’s talk: “I need to talk to whoever, I need to be creating with my fellow human beings because this is going to make me…so I can tap into that source inside of me. (Holding up fortune cookie fortune) “If you seek it, you’re going to find it.” You’re going to find creative ways to interact with other people. And, you’ll find creative ways to make beautiful things happen. Its going be gender non-specific, intergenerational, non-binary, transracial, cut across class, geography…none of these things are going to be impediments because it comes from a source that is timeless, that is ultimate creativity, that is unknown, in the most beautiful ways.”

I have deep gratitude for finding my way to Kenya’s talk this day. If you seek it, you’re going to find it.

To follow Kenya (Robinson)’s work, visit her at www.kenyarobinson.com, and on Instagram @kenya9

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