My First Letter To The Editor Published: And Its Barrington Clapback

11 Feb


photo: Joe Wilson, Jr. as Ulysses, and Cloteal L. Horne as Circe, in “black odyssey” at Trinity Repertory Company, Jan. 3 – Feb. 3, 2019 (photo credit: Mark Turek)

On January 23rd, 2019, I got my first Opinion letter published in our local newspaper, The Providence Journal. I was so mad about a review of Trinity Repertory Company’s play, black odyssey, written by the paper’s theater critic, Channing Grey, that I just had to write the letter.

The play, black odyssey, by acclaimed playwright, Marcus Gardley, is a retelling of Homer’s classic, The Odyssey. According to Trinity Rep, the play is how “one man’s journey home from war leads him on an adventure connecting him with his own ancestors and our shared humanity, before finally delivering him back to his wife and son.”

It is an epic tale–a layered journey of storytelling, with song, ritual, and time travel through ancient and current history of the African diaspora, including black American history and culture. The play is two hours and fifty minutes in length.

Here is Gray’s review:

[Read more…]

The Problem With White People Time

22 Jan

If Beale Street Could Talk
Tish and Fonny, If Beale Street Could Talk
(photo credit: The Atlantic)

We’ve heard it, right? People from various cultural groups talking about being on “black people’s time” or “Spanish people’s time.” In other words, the self-effacing joke that when they say they’ll arrive at that family function at 3:00 p.m. and show up at 5:00 p.m., they are not late, and every one already knows they are not showing up at 3:00 p.m.

Then, there’s the joke comedian Chris Tucker tells about the one thing he learned from dating white girls, was, to be “on time.”

There’s beauty in realizing we have different relationships to time. I remember my mother and aunts talking about trips to Spain to visit my grandmother, who had moved there when she retired. As a teenager, I loved imagining the dinners they spoke of, that started around nine o’clock and stretched to midnight with a languorous parade of tapas, wine, espresso, and conversation.

But time can become a problem when white people expect it to unfold in their real time. In all of my noticing, and consciousness-raising of my own whiteness, and whiteness as a whole, I have come to see how when we gauge an art form, or an event, or a social interaction through our white, European-centered lens, sense of etiquette, and what we’ve been indoctrined by white society to deem the way something should be done, we do a great disservice to black people, and of course to any other culture, ethnicity or race that is different from our own. To begin to break down our white-centered gaze, we must first remember how whiteness sees itself as the center, as the norm, and everyone else, as spokes streaming out from the center of the wheel of whiteness.

This whole matter of white people’s time came to my attention last week, when Joe Wilson, Jr., a main actor from the renowned Trinity Repertory Company here in Providence, Rhode Island, posted a social media note about a review in The Providence Journal. Joe, who is black, and who acts in and co-directs the currently running play, black odyssey, was incensed that theatre critic, Channing Grey, who is white, wrote the play “could use some trimming.”

The play, black odyssey, by acclaimed playwright, Marcus Gardley, is a retelling of Homer’s classic, The Odyssey. According to Trinity Rep, the play is how “one man’s journey home from war leads him on an adventure connecting him with his own ancestors and our shared humanity, before finally delivering him back to his wife and son.”

It is an epic tale–a layered journey of storytelling, with song, ritual, and time travel through ancient and current history of the African diaspora, including black American history and culture. The play is 2 hours and 50 minutes in length.

When I read the entire review, I was also bothered by other perspectives of the critic. Grey stated as if it was not enough for Gardley to not only show us “tortured slavery, …but also…police brutality,” it was as if he was saying, the nerve of the playwright to make me confront the ongoing history of black pain at the hands of whiteness. Another line about this being a play for “often forgotten audiences,” gave way to the reality of structural white-centered dominance in the arts, including who gets to say what is considered mainstream theatre.

But, back to white people’s time. When we say a play needs some trimming, we are saying that from our learned white-gaze, what a play should look like, how the story should be structured, how the art of storytelling should be expressed, how the actors should perform their lines, how the stage direction should go, and how tidily edited it should be. We are giving our white-centered critique of another group’s culture, which we do not know. Therefore, how can we critique it?

I can recall a time, of which I am ashamed of, when my own white people time showed itself. It was at a fundraiser several years back, highlighting the good works of local Black businesses. I remember catching myself thinking that the pacing of the event was slow in spots, and that the guests took too much time speaking at the podium. Then I caught myself, and said to myself: “wait a minute! When do white people ever give attention to black businesses, or host community events and notice who is included and who is excluded, or notice much else that black people do and accomplish, aside from our celebrity worship of black artists and athletes? And, so, while knowing black people don’t ever need my permission, or acknowledgment, I quickly jumped to the thought of, “go ahead! You should be taking all the time you want to stop and recognize yourself, and your peers, and to bask in the attention and praise you deserve. And, who am I to say how the pacing of an event should go, if I am only going to consider all the white-centered planning of events I have attended throughout my life?” I realized that my white people time was way off the mark, and I adjusted.

I almost had to slap myself when I caught myself using white people time again at If Beale Street Could Talk, a beautiful and deep film, inspired by James Baldwin’s story of the same name. The film was directed by Barry Jenkins, who also directed Moonlight. Stylistically, the film for me, with its use in places, of slow-motion cinematography, and time-suspended close-ups of its actors gazing into the camera, pulled me into another dimension of time, another dimension of being. The film asked me to slow down my i-phone, social media rush of a world, and simply be there in the moment with the young couple in love: Fonny, played by Stephan James, and Tish, played by Kiki Layne. The pacing of the film allowed me to get to know their families, their conversations full of weight, of gold, of lightness of being, their beauty, their love, their knowing determination to survive the reality of their lives living in their skin in 1970’s New York City.

There are a number of scenes where their love is shown through the actors’ suspended gazes at one another, and toward the end of the two-hour film in one of the scenes where Fonny is looking at Tish, my white people time kicked in. I wondered, could I do with a tiny bit less of the slowed moments, but then again, immediately after the thought came, I stopped my whiteness lens, and said, No! It is not for me to critique the movement of this film. Fonny’s loving gaze, the slowed moments that capture the love of these two main characters, and their families, is a love that white America rarely takes the time to see, to experience, to believe it exists.

The love of Tish’s family, the joy of living in all kinds of love–including family and friends–and the commitment to both, and also the deep knowing of the struggle to survive and thrive living as a black person in this country is something most of us white people don’t pay attention to. And so I acknowledged my white-centered lens had too thick of a filter on, and I flowed with Barry Jenkins’ flow. And, the flow was beautiful.

I realized, too, Beale Street’s storytelling wasn’t necessarily for me, or for white people to “get.”Some or all of it’s cultural signifiers and nuances, may skim over our heads, and hearts. But, it’s message of the reality of what it is like for black men to live and be wrongfully convicted–their lives “thrown away” in the unjust criminal justice system, and the impact that has on his families, is of course critical for white people to get. So is the portrayal and reflection of black people’s lives, humanity and narratives, when given dimension, and are seen in the world in a way so rarely seen in films telling white-centered stories, written by white writers, and filmed by white directors. Realizing all of this, I then had, and have, gratitude for being able to witness this story as told by its storytellers, Baldwin and Jenkins. I recalled Julie Dash’s film, Daughters of the Dust, and again remembered, time, and storytelling, is relative.

With all of this talk of white people time as it relates to black art forms and events centering the black experience, I am not saying white people don’t have the right to their own opinion about the quality of a piece of work, or can not share about how a piece of work made them think or feel, but knowing most of all of that is subjective anyway, what I am asking, is that as white people, we first take note of the lens we are looking through, and then, crush it.

Isn’t it about time we did so?

2018 Year-In-Review. What I Wrote. What I Learned. What’s Next.

20 Dec

Rashon Nelson, Donte Peterson
Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson

At the end of each year, I look back at my writings here to remember, and reflect on what was going on in the world around me in regards to race, about what I’ve learned, and hopefully, how I’ve grown.

I started off 2018 by writing The Crack Cocaine Center Of Excellence about my anger over the discrepancy on how the opioid “crisis” is being treated now that it is impacting white suburban communities vs. how Black people were treated who were impacted by what was called the “crack epidemic” in the 1980’s.

On February 14th, we learned Valentines Day will now forever be overshadowed by the occurrence of the Parkland, Florida school shooting. In Let Us Listen To All Of Our Young People’s Cries For Help To End Gun Violence. I wrote about how proud I was of the Parkland students for rising up and becoming passionate activists working to end gun violence. Yet, as they garnered the nation’s and the world’s attention, and praise, I, and others, who also praised the Parkland students, wished the same attention was given to the young Black and Brown students in Baltimore, Ferguson, and throughout the country, who have been activists for much longer. They have been activists out of the need to speak on behalf of their communities who have experienced gun violence, and police brutality, and killings by police officers, but have not gotten the same mainstream attention as the highlighted, mostly white, suburban Florida students.

[Read more…]

Hype Man: A Break Beat Play, At The Wilbury Theatre: Timely,Urgent, So Worth The Hype, I Saw It Twice

26 Nov

Hype Man Wilbury Theatre

Hype Man actors, l to r, Phoenyx Williams, Jeff Hodge, Helena Tafuri, (photo credit: Erin X. Smithers)

I knew I wanted to see Hype Man: A Break Beat Play as soon as I heard about its November run at The Wilbury Theatre Group in Providence. And after seeing the play, I knew I had to write about Hype Man’s timely theme of race, police brutality, and the impact it has on the relationship of the play’s three characters: Pinnacle, the white rapper, played by Jeff Hodge,Verb, Pinnacle’s Hype Man, who is black, and is played by Phoenyx Williams, and Peep One, the woman who creates the group’s beats, played by Helena Tafuri. The play written by break beat poet and playwright, Idris Goodwin, was expertly directed by Don Mays, who allowed each actor to shine in their respective roles.

Verb and Pinnacle grew up together, the best of friends, and bonded further through music, and the formation of their own hip-hop group. Peep is a newer addition to the group, but is vitally important with her attention-grabbing beats. The entire play takes place in the group’s rehearsal studio–save one time the set doubles as a television stage–the spare set consisting of an elevated round platform fitted with a mixing table, a stool, and a microphone. I learned from the play’s director, Don Mays, that the tri-colored, at times overlapping, voice patterns painted on the black walls behind the set, represent the three recorded voice patterns of the actors.

In the opening scene of this one-act play, Verb enters and begins fumbling with the sound system. Pinnacle sneaks up on him, and after a good laugh, and greeting one another with a hug, we learn Verb is just returning to the group after a month-long hiatus for therapy, for what Pinnacle later calls Verb’s “wild behavior.” Peep enters in a rush, and apologizes for being late for rehearsal, sharing there was a police shooting by the highway that slowed her arrival. Verb, looking at his phone, reads that police shot a young black male, 17, named Jerrod. Peep picks up her phone and reads that Jerrod had just gotten the news that his grandmother had taken a turn for the worse in the hospital and was rushing to get to her before it was too late. He was unarmed. He was shot with his hands up while running away from officers.

Sound familiar? It is in this moment we, the audience, are about to witness [Read more…]

On Being Jewish, On Being A Part Of The Tree Of Life

30 Oct

Me As A Rat (See #10 )

“Mom, some boy called me a kite today!” I told my mother, after walking home from school in third grade. I didn’t understand why he called me that word, but I knew it had to be something mean, because of the tight twisting of his face when he screamed it at me on the school playground.

Right then is when my mother had to teach me the word kike, a derogatory word for Jew. There is some discrepancy on the origin of the word, but some say it was born on Ellis Island when there were Jewish migrants who were also illiterate, or could not use Latin alphabet letters. When asked to sign the entry-forms with the customary “X”, the Jewish immigrants would refuse, because they associated an X with the cross of Christianity. Instead, they drew a circle as their entry-form signatures. The Yiddish word for “circle” is kikel, which got shortened to kike, as a nickname for Jews, and later turned into a derogatory slur. Another story is that German Jews already assimilated in the United States, used kike, a word created from how many Jewish last names ended in ki or ky, as a put down for Eastern European Jews coming to the States, who they saw as inferior to themselves.

It’s four decades later from that day on the playground. But the familiarity of the pain associated at times with being a Jew came back to me this past Saturday when a fellow staff member at work called me over to our hospital unit’s dimly lit tv room to see the breaking news of the murder of eleven Jewish people worshipping at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Numbness was all I could allow myself to feel in that moment. Yet, I was forced to remember there are still people who hate me, who want to see me gone; dead, simply because I am a Jew.

Memories cropped up. Here are 10 times I remembered who I was, was not acceptable. [Read more…]

What Whiteness Does, And Doesn’t Do, Or, Some Things I Learned During The North Smithfield, RI Proposed Nike Ban Resolution

23 Oct

North Smithfield RI Nike Ban

Beauregard’s Nike Ban Resolution

I wish I was an “in the moment” blogger. The kind that writes about a newsworthy event right after it happens and posts it within the same twenty-four hours. But I’m not. I seem to take my time these days, thinking that perhaps letting the dust settle, helps me process, and consider the story worth telling.

On September 17, 2018, as I scrolled through my Facebook feed in order to distract myself from writing, my eyes fixed on a post from a friend telling of a Town Council meeting taking place that evening in Smithfield, Rhode Island.  The Town Council president called the meeting to put forth a resolution “suggesting” the town schools and businesses not purchase Nike products.  In my immediate WTF reaction, I typed in my Facebook status that I would be going to that meeting wearing full Nike gear. I asked if anyone cared to join me. Never mind that I don’t own any Nike. I am not sporty. I also decided years ago to stop buying their goods when I heard of their labor practices employing children, and paying horrible wages. But I knew I needed to show up. I could not let this meeting in the state I now live in go by without being there to protest it.

Smithfield, Rhode Island is a suburban town of about 12,000 residents, and is situated about twenty minutes north of where I live in the diverse city of Providence. Smithfield’s demographics: 96% white residents. John Beauregard, the Town Council president who called for the resolution, is a former State Trooper. He claims working as such gives him a perspective different from the average citizen. Beauregard stated in a news article about the meeting, that he feels Colin Kaepernick has a high disregard toward police officers, and that Nike’s ad featuring Colin’s image, with the tag line: Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything, is insulting to police officers. In his words, Kaepernick has sacrificed nothing, nothing like the sacrifices that police officers make every day, hoping that they’ll make it home safe to their families. Mr. Beauregard, apparently also part of the gaslighting committee in town, is yet another human being who has done the mental gymnastics necessary to turn Colin’s taking a knee in protest of police brutality and racial inequality, into a threat–in this case–to the very fine town of Smithfield. He sees as the natural solution to the worrisome Kaepernick: have the town not buy Nike products endorsed by Colin Kaepernick. But we know better what his resolution implies, right?

I thought I’d be going to the meeting alone that night without any friends saying they’d join me, but shortly before I was about to go, [Read more…]

The Power of Aretha Franklin’s Think

20 Aug

Aretha Franklin Aretha Now

Aretha Franklin

When my daughter Leni was born, like all new babies–in between sleeping, breastfeeding, quiet awake time, and diaper changes–she cried. As a new parent, you do that thing where you try to figure out why they are crying. Is she hungry? Is she tired? Is she gassy? Is she…? But most of all, especially when you are running on little sleep, and you are stressed because you know you don’t know, you just want your baby to stop crying.

No longer married now, my husband at that time, Tim, had bought for me, the 1968 Aretha Franklin cd, Aretha Now. If my memory is correct, he got it for me because it was classic soul, and as a fine artist and furniture-maker,  he believed the history, the context, and the classic, best examples of an art form, were highly important. That they gave us the foundation necessary for appreciating and understanding a work of art. I have mostly always listened to more mainstream popular r & b, soul, funk, and hip-hop. The Aretha Now cd, if I’m not mistaken, was to both upgrade my listening ear, and I even think it was intended for Leni, to from the very beginning of her new life, know what real, best-of-the-best music is. Some babies got Baby Mozart cd’s. Our baby, Leni, got the Queen Mother Of Soul.

On one of those crying moments in the cramped living room of our one-bedroom apartment in New York City, tripping over Leni’s Boppy pillow, I put Aretha Now into the cd player and pressed play. I picked up Leni from her floor seat, and held her close. I rubbed her back to try and get her to calm down. Aretha’s Think came on.

Leni stopped crying instantly. She let her body loosen. Her gaze became alert.

She knew. She knew Aretha’s voice commanded her attention. That all would be all right. That she was in the presence of something beyond explanation. She didn’t need to cry any more. And it was like one of those funny baby videos that you watch and they show the baby crying until the parent makes some kind of funny face, and then the baby immediately stops crying, but just as quickly starts crying again when the parent stops making the face, and then calms again with the face making, and so on. Leni, if she wasn’t fully calmed down, would cry as soon as Think was over, and so we simply played it again. And again. On numerous crying occasions.

And as I danced around the room with my Leni, who is eighteen now and about to leave home for her first year of college, there was nothing to trip over. My dazed, sleepless state, erased, I  floated, elevated by joy.

Rest easy, Queen Mother Of Soul, Aretha Franklin. Thank you for the extraordinary gift you bestowed upon all of us on this entire planet.

 

 

 

___________________________________________________________

SOURCE:

www.youtube.com

Photo credit: Rhino.com

 

Every Day, Chip Away At De-Centering Whiteness

8 Aug

I really want to say, take big chunks; take a sledge hammer and demo away at that center.  But, I know de-centering whiteness will take time. As I vision in my head another dimension of existence that we have not yet lived here in the United States, as I imagine our world without “white culture” as the norm, or center, two aspects of centered whiteness come to mind:

First is the unconscious existence of white people to not notice that we are at the center of everything in this country. Yet, we engineered it to be so. Because of that we have the luxury to not notice that we can move through this world so fluidly. We can take for granted, and we do, how easily we can live where we want to live, work where we want to work, go to school where we want to go to school, and spend our leisure time where we want to. And, for the most part, we can do all of this surrounded by mostly other white people. We can live, work, and play in mostly white spaces where we feel comfortable surrounded by people who look like us. And our museums, and movies, and our news channels, will reflect all of this back to us, and tell us that our existence this way is real, and it is good. It is our normal.

The second is the centering of whiteness in order to [Read more…]

If I Die And Come Back As A White Man, I Want To Come Back As Anthony Bourdain

19 Jun

Anthony Bourdain

Anthony Bourdain Eating in Hue Vietnamphoto credit: David S. Holloway/CNN

If I die and come back as a white man, I want to come back as Anthony Bourdain.

Since the June 8th death, a suicide, at age 61 of the famed chef, author and host of the popular television show, Parts Unknown, there has been an outpouring of love for this man. Out of all the news bits, social media articles, and postings from friends, every single comment has been positive. Every. Single. One. People loved Anthony Bourdain so, so much. Whether Black, White, Latino, Asian–whatever race, ethnicity, gender–everyone loved him. But I don’t want to come back as him because I want everyone to love me even though I do want everyone to love me and am too much of a people pleaser because of that, but that’s for my therapy sessions, not you all. I want to come back as Anthony Bourdain for the [Read more…]

The 10th Annual Black Lavender Experience At Brown University’s Rites and Reason Theatre

11 May

Travis Alabanza Black Lavender Experience

Travis Alabanza, The Black Lavender Experience

In April I went to two performances at Brown University’s Rites and Reason Theatre. The shows were part of the theater’s 10th annual Black Lavender Experience, a series of plays, folkthoughts (post-performance talks), and workshops, led by nationally and internationally recognized artists of color from the LGBTQ community. The Department of Africana Studies’ Rites and Reason Theatre is a research and developmental theatre dedicated to giving expression to the diverse cultures and traditions of continental and diasporic Africans and the vast Africana experience. Artistic Director of Rites and Reason Theatre, Elmo Terry-Morgan created the Black Lavender Experience in the spring semester of 1998 in response to students’ request for plays with Black LGBTQ+ content.

The Pink Dress

The first play I attended, The Pink Dress, was written and originally performed by members of the drama club at  Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women’s (LCIW).   The Black Lavender production was performed by local actresses, who were either students currently involved with, or alumni of, Brown University’s Rites and Reason Theatre. The actresses were Anna Hunt, April Brown, Elyssa Perez, Sylvia Ann Soares, Weitong Zhang, and Uchechukwu Onwunaka. Rites and Reason Director-in-Residence, Connie Crawford, directed this production. The play’s title refers to a pink sheath that prison staff used as punishment for women prisoners who presented themselves in a “too masculine way” by altering their state issued uniform: an oversize T-shirt, baggy jeans, and sneakers. The thought was that to wear the sheer, shapeless dress through which your undergarments could be seen,would shame and humiliate the women.

The play, a series of vignettes, celebrated the features and parts of  a woman’s body through word and movement, and was originally directed and choreographed by Ausettua Amor Amankum and Kathy Randels, co-directors of the Drama Club at the LCIW. Odes to their hips, hands, and feet, were akin to a poetic dance celebrating both womanhood and sisterhood. The play’s latter act took place in a dress shop named, “Pinky’s Boutique,” and highlighted the self-doubt a gender non-conforming ex-prisoner faced when looking for work at the shop post prison-release. Actresses posing as mannequins wearing paper doll cut-out tabbed pink dresses, came alive to first, mock, and then empathize with the woman. Is was as if they too, seemed constricted by their roles as mannequins being told what to wear, and how to perform their roles. After facing discrimination for her manner of dress from a co-worker, the woman finds acceptance with the shop’s owner, who focuses on the woman’s strengths instead of her attire preferences and prison record. With the recognition of her humanity, we see the woman’s belief in self begin to grow.

We learned during the folkthought talk, that the vignettes were inspired by [Read more…]

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