Tuesday, May 22, 2012

2nd Story!

I recently became a company member at 2nd Story, a Chicago-based oral storytelling and music collective who make it their aim to connect people through the power of sharing story. I'm really excited to be a part of such a tremendous group of artists and thinkers. I've worked with 2nd Story on and off for years, but it's finally become the right time to take our collaboration to the next level.

In that spirit, I'm performing in a 2nd Story show tonight at Premise. If you're in Chicago, come out and support this fantastic group of writers, performers and artists as we build and create connections through shared story.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Love. Civil Rights. And Elephant-Faced Gods

I wanted to write a totally spiritual post this morning, about the connections between prophesy and meditation and Ganesh, that pot-bellied, Elephant-headed deity.
But instead I'm going to write about marriage equality.

I read this article on TheRoot.com about how black Christian voters need to get over President Obama's announcement that he's okay with same-sex marriage. The writer starts with a staffer for MLK who was openly gay, but who in his work during the civil rights movement, had to pass as straight because of the black community's reticence to promote gay rights. I think the most compelling argument the writer cites is, in essence, black people in America have (or should have) more to worry about that who marries whom--namely, the fact that "Up to 10 percent of young blacks drop out of high school, rendering them largely unable to take advantage of a skilled-worker- and technology-oriented U.S. job market. Meanwhile, black males have a 1-in-3 chance of doing prison time at some point during their lives."

On top of which are facts like black women are more likely to die of breast cancer than white women (this is very important to me, as a black woman who loves her breasts), and that diet-related diseases are crippling the black community at an alarming rate.

This morning, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote about how black celebrities are weighing in about marriage equality. His post was short, and I gotta say it, a little muddy, but I just figure that when I don't understand what he's trying to say in his writing it's me, not him.
So what I noticed at the conclusion of both posts, from The Root.com and The Atlantic.com, was the discouraging volume of "This is unnatural/Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve/What's next, bestiality?/Can't let our views be corrupted" bullshit rhetoric in the comments sections. I suppose I get what I pay for, right? My husband's always warning me not to read the comments of articles, because nine times out of ten, I'm sure to read a bunch of wackos saying wacky stuff.

But these are my wackos. These are my people. I am a member of the black community, not because my skin color puts me there or because I check a box on a census form, but because I say I am.
What troubles me about the anti-gay vibe that comes from the black community is the self-hatred that is obviously at work at the center of it. I hate that after this much time in America, that after all our history, of slavery, of reconstruction and back-breaking fruitless labor, of Jim Crow and Great Migrations and continual, generational fear for our lives and hard work, that we still can't extend enough love to ourselves to let ourselves love whoever and however we will. I have never understood the fear of black homosexuality at work in the black community. Maybe it's because I have the privilege of being straight, and cis-gendered. I have only understood that it exists, and have been deeply grieved by it. Still, STILL, after the election of the first biracial person of color to our nation's highest office, after all of the post-black language we've talked to ourselves and each other, after such race consciousness, we haven't evolved to the place where our consciousness extends to who we invite into our bedroom. I'm ashamed.
More than the self-hatred, what troubles me about this anti-gay vibe is that it is deliberately ignorant of how minorities have historically been treated in this country. Willfully, deliberately ignorant, in a way that makes me want to shout.
Last night my husband asked me about black republicans, and I found myself so flummoxed as to not be able to talk, to answer his questions. Let me not unload at black conservatives here and now. I will only say this:

"I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial "outside agitator" idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds."

That's not me, right? (duh.) That's Martin Luther King in "Letter from a Birmingham Jail."

Astoundingly, I've never read this document from beginning to end. I knew I wanted to use this quote, but I thought, Jess, you can't really quote from it without knowing it. So I read it.
On an unrelated note, it is a fine model of writing a letter to a friend wherein you chasten him. But on this matter of the same-sex marriage and black community (of which the black church is a powerful institution), it was full of some real profundity, and not just from the quote that everyone cites, the one above.
photo from Socialist Webzine.blogspot.com. How many times have you seen the Great Black Thinkers in this pose? I think James Baldwin had it patented.
Here are others:

"But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word 'tension.' I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood..."
"Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals..."

Okay, let that last one sink in. Black folk don't like to think of ourselves as privileged. I'll be the first person to admit that for years my perception of privilege started and ended at the feet of white people. But around this issue, we are, or at least we have been ever since the Fourteenth Amendment, which made our black ancestors American Citizens. Those of us who are born in this country--as descendants of slaves and despite the many institutional consequences of the injury slavery dealt all Americans--we do have certain privileges. We don't have to worry about being deported. We don't have to marry people we don't love just so we can get enough papers to keep our jobs. Shit, we can marry whoever we want. We can go down to a government office with our first cousin (in some states) or with someone who's at least 18 (or younger, with parental consent, depending on the state), and get a license that permits us to join our resources, our lives, our names if we want.
Just so long as they're of the opposite sex.

So all those people whose love looks different than ours are denied a civil right. All those Americans, born in this country, are denied a government process. Like voting. Or owning property. Hm. That sounds like privilege. I linked to it once already, but I'll link to it again, because she says it better than me: Roxane Gay on privilege.

"To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust."
This is another from "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." I would imagine that these Americans, whose blood is red enough to be spilled on behalf of our country (and who can now do so openly, and not in denial of their sexuality), whose money is green enough to be taxed by our country, who are educating our children in our schools and healing our loved ones in our hospitals--I would imagine these Americans feel like the denial to recognize their commitment to their loved one is degrading to their human personality. Our refusal to recognize their commitment is degrading to my human personality.
Black people, do not take your privilege and your position in this country for granted. About this issue, we are privileged, but privilege changes. If you really believe that your rights are safe, even as you seek to deny the rights of others, you obviously haven't paid attention to our history. I say that knowing full well about the plagues on our community. Still. We cannot, in good, Christian faith, deny the rights of others while seeking to protect our own. Jesus was a revolutionary. Think for a minute about the compassion, the boundless love, that was Jesus' mission on this planet. Love someone so much it makes you uncomfortable. Love someone so much it makes you vulnerable. Love someone so much that it scares you. Jesus did not model exclusive love, love only to some members of the human club. He modeled love for anyone who was brave and humble enough to show love and accept love.
I wanted to quote a bible verse here, but I'm reluctant for this post to turn into exegesis. I'm unqualified, and not in the mood. I only want to say that historically what it has meant to be American has been to work for promoting equal rights, equal protection, and equal opportunity under the law. Our country has failed at that time and again, but we can't stop because some of us think we would be more comfortable if gay people didn't marry. It wasn't that long ago that some of us would have been more comfortable if white people didn't marry black people. Loving v. Virginia, the supreme court case that made it illegal for states to outlaw interracial marriage, was passed in 1967. That was forty-five years ago. That's not even a generation, is it? That's nothing.
What else is there left to say? Love one another, as Christ loves you: regardless of skin color, dietary habit, weight, height, sexual promiscuity, gender, race, nationality, sexual orientation or even religion. He loves you because Christ is love.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Race Out Loud--What I Would Have Tweeted if I Could Have

Alas, I have not yet joined the million of smart phone users. I still operate as a technological troglodyte, so I can't Tweet from my phone. But I was at an event hosted by WBEZ and Vocalo.org last week, and if I could have tweeted, this is what my feed would have looked like. 

Tune in to 91.5 tonight at 8 pm to hear the broadcast of the conversation: a dramatic reading of excerpts from Studs Terkel's book Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel about an American Obsession. Reading followed by a conversation of Chicagoans on the subject. It's a volatile conversation.


Why isn't work like Studs Terkel (ethnography) still happening in the classroom?

"not fags"--the oppression should make us (black folk) more tolerant. Labels are damaging.

Natalie Moore is my journalistic hero.

Richie Davis but no Joe Boone...

Richie Davis just compared conservative superpacs/Tea Party to Nazis--manipulating good people out of fear.

Convo makes me think about Jonathan Lethem's novel The Fortress of Solitude. Haven't read it, but thinking about it.

@randomoldwhiteguytryingtoinciteconflict If you don't want to talk about race, why are you here?

"Racialization" of undocumented citizens.

I listen to young people speak and I wonder why we aren't listening to them more; why aren't they hosting this... such wisdom.

"Believing in race is just believing in white supremacy."

I keep hearing people distance themselves from race--"this American obsession with race," "why is this still a big deal"--it's so small, short-sighted.

To say race in America is no big deal is to speak from so profound a place of privilege as not to feel it.

Toni Asante Lightfoot, I love you. "How do we turn our money into our representation."

Who is Diana Katowski? Is this like asking who is Paul McCartney?

Gentleman speaking about anger--just the tip of the iceberg.


Sista with a great natural just used the word "phenotypically" to identify herself. :)

Healing. Relationship that was broken. Each of us carries racial wounds in our tissue. We have to heal ourselves in order to see each other.

It certainly was an interesting event, and I'm excited to see how WBEZ keeps the conversation going all summer. I know that by the end of the night my hand was in the air, but there was no time for my comment, which would have been this:

If America is ever to understand and live beyond the fact of racism in this country it is going to take a lot of healing: healing on a massive, supernatural scale. That is to say, each American with even the slightest inkling of pain, defensiveness or fear or ignorance is going to have to do some healing work. Healing is a painful, messy, bloody business. Like Tony Kushner wrote in Angels in America about change, "It has something to do with God, so it's not very nice." But only when each of us has done the painful, bloody work of healing can we really begin to see the trauma visited down on so many generations of Americans, and make individual, relational and institutional changes that will begin to make us a united country, and not a nation of citizens who enjoy unequal statuses.

Okay, so it would've sounded different. Much as I'd like to say I run around quoting Tony Kushner all day, I don't. But you get where I'm going. Healing. On a generational, institutional as well as individual level, we all have a ton of healing to do.

One final note: there's an essay I read today by Roxane Gay about privilege that I think everyone I know, and even the people I don't know, should read. It serves as an interesting lens for this conversation.
I've used this photo before. It's a Gordon Parks. His work: seriously.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Maybe Tomorrow

This year was the first that I didn't celebrate Mother's Day. I didn't have brunch with my mother at the House of Blues--as I'd often fantasized about doing for many years; I didn't send her a bunch of tulips via FTD; I didn't call her and tell her how much she meant to me; I didn't even pick out a card from Target and drop it in the mail.

Why, you're asking? Why would I be such a thoughtless, cruel, and ungrateful adult daughter as to let pass this day of honor and remembrance without so much as a, "Hey, thanks"? Well, if you're new here, you don't know that my relationship with my mother has for years been pretty toxic, and because I was tired of beating my head against a wall, I stopped: I haven't seen my mother in person in two years, haven't spoken to her on the phone in almost a year, haven't been in her home in almost three. It was like breaking up with a bad boyfriend, only, you know, it's one of the first people you ever formed a relationship with and who's in all your family photos and who's connected to every last one of your relatives.

(I feel a lot of grief about this. I don't have the kind of relationship with my mother that I wanted, and I don't think what I want from a mother is possible with my mother. So I'm not a callous, heartless ungrateful child. I'm sad. But I'm taking care of myself.)

I was wondering this morning, who was it that thought up Mother's Day? Who thought that our mothers needed their own day? Well, according to wikipedia, lots of people. Some version of Mother's Day is celebrated all over the world, from Brazil to Iran to Taiwan. Here in the United States, the first Mother's Day was a day for peace and a call for disarmament--there's a way to honor mothers: stop killing their sons in war--in 1872. The holiday as we know it was created by one woman who wanted to make her mother's dream come true (cue: violin swell) and was signed into national holiday-dom in 1914. Maybe it's good that moms have a day: they work a lot, they worry a lot, they feel pulled in a zillion different directions, and at the end of it all, they've probably only done an average job of raising a human being.

Confession time: When asked recently if I disliked mothers, I said no, that I don't dislike mothers, but that I do distrust mothers. I don't understand them. I have some great friends who are mothers. A new friend of mine, a hardworking and accomplished woman, calls her role as mother into her classroom and into her writing on a regular basis; she cites it as one of the things that makes her a better human being. Maybe it does. A young woman I used to know, one of the greatest young writers I've ever met, has recently become a mother. Her facebook page is full of photos of a lovely girl peering at the camera from within her gorgeously tattooed arms, looking like some kind of post-modern Precious Moments doll. My best friend in the world recently had her first child. She is less than a year old, and I hope and look forward to meeting her soon. She has the brilliance, interest and reflection of her mother, my friend, all over her. And yet, the other night, out with my husband, I said, "I don't understand why women become mothers. I mean, I think about myself, and I feel so Not Ready to be a mother; I can't understand, I can't believe, that women my age have kids.Why do it? Is there nothing else better to do?" I learned yesterday that it takes a woman's body five years to recover from childbirth/nursing, so that she's fully ready to have another. Five years! What makes a woman want to put herself through that, just to have some kid to take care of? When I realized that I didn't trust mothers, it hit me like a bucket of concrete in the back, but it felt like the truest thing I'd said in a while.

If you're a mother reading this, and it hurts you, I'm sorry. I know my distrust of mothers is excluseively about a profound and enduring distrust of my own mother. I think she wanted to be a woman who was a resource to me, who would help me grow into a woman that was strong, smart, capable, impressive, attractive, et cetera. However, what she was to me was a woman who wanted so desperately for me to succeed where she struggled that she imbibed me with some profound fear and actually passed on some of her own broken thinking, from which I am trying to disentangle myself. I realize that she wanted me to grow into a better version of herself, not into me. This doesn't seem to me a reason to become a mom, so you can create a version of yourself who will meet the man you never met, have the waistline you can't seem to have, get the job you always wanted, and be a better version of you.
But wait, that's the whole premise for that show, Toddlers and Tiaras, isn't it?

Anyway, I certainly don't know why my mother became a mom, and I have lots of doubts about why anyone else would do it either. I don't feel great about this. I don't want my best friend to read this and think that I have doubts about her life choices. I don't want to glaze my eyes over when my writer friend start talking about her tow-headed four year old, an only child who knows about Adele and Kafka and Wired and the Green Lantern. I don't want to sputter in bitterness if I start getting invitations to baby showers. I don't want my friends to think that I'm trying to work out my issues by evaluating their life choices. What if one of them reads this? They'll think I'm batshit crazy. They'll think I don't love or support them. These women aren't my mother. Not all women who have babies are my mother, I get it, I know it.

I wish that helped me to understand, or to trust mothers. Not today. Maybe tomorrow.

So yesterday instead of feeling sorry for myself about my fractured (hell, why sugar coat it: totaled) relationship with my mother, I wound up hosting a brunch for a bunch of friends, some old, some new. My husband had some plans that fell through, we called around to a group of folks, and voila. Dinner party at 11 am: perfectly ripe mango & pineapple, g-free vegan crepes, lots of laughter and sunshine. Great day. A short bike ride, a yoga class at the studio nearby--my new favorite studio--and even an hour of paid work. Score. At the end of the night I went to pick my husband up at a wine bar in Lincoln Park where he was working for a theatre company we both work with. I was content to stand in the back and listen to the stories being told, wait for him to clock out.
And then I heard it. The final teller took the mike. She was a beautiful woman, a sista with walnut skin and hair that she'd braided and then unbraided, so it stood around her hair like a halo. She began telling a story about her mother, and how her mother could open impossible jars or whatnot, and how members of the family gave her the label of having "retarded strength". (An offensive phrase, but that wasn't my trigger.) The next sentence she uttered was about wondering what it was that made her mother so strong.

Okay. So "Strong Black Woman" are words that go together like peanut butter and jelly. It's a phrase you hear repeated ad nauseum, so much so that you might think that they don't mint black women who aren't strong black women; we may be diverse in lots of ways--language, skin color, hair texture, politics, religion--but damn it if we ain't all strong, every last one of us. Mothers especially. The rhetoric of the strong black woman who is raising her kids and working two jobs and can do bad all by herself and don't need nothing from nobody is all over our art (sigh, thank you, Tyler Perry (was that sarcastic enough?)), our politics, our sociology; it's everywhere. So happens that last night on my way to work, I heard a musician talking about his mother, a strong black woman who was a vocalist and piano player who played a dizzying myriad of music for him to listen to, which is what shaped him into the brilliant, highly demanded jazz pianist he is today. This didn't put a good taste in my mouth. It put the taste of my mother in my mouth: chicken fat, bitterness and self-loathing, in case you were wondering.

So when this storyteller who'd gotten about twenty words of her story into the room started wondering aloud what made her mamma so strong, I had it. I leaned over to my husband: "I can't listen to this story. I'm gonna go for a walk." And in less than 30 seconds I was out the door and on Webster Avenue in the dark, walking away from the bar as fast as I could go. 
I got about a hundred feet when I realized I'd left my jacket upstairs. Then after a few more steps, I realized I had no wallet. A few more: no phone. Wow, I ran up outta there. I must have really been upset.
I was upset. I'm over the idea of strong black woman, and entirely over the idea of my mother as strong black mother: because it wasn't the truth. My mother wasn't a strong black mother. She was very, very good at looking like one. She will work herself sick in order to impress her colleagues and supervisors. She will dress to the nines if she thinks she's being looked at by anyone with power or influence, who may evaluate her. She will speak the polite educated speak as well as speak the 'hood speak just like so many of us do. But these things don't make her strong; they just make her look strong.

The truth is I couldn't trust my mother to do for me the way I needed her to do because she was so consumed by her own need that I just didn't get in. It's like if you have a stab wound in your rib and a paper cut on your finger (oh, this is such a flawed metaphor, just go with me)--the stab wound takes all of your attention, and you barely notice the paper cut at all. At some point, you may even need the paper cut to work in service of the stab wound. (Okay, I give, metaphor broken.) My mother has so many wounds, and felt them so profoundly when I was growing up, that she was crippled by them. She couldn't care for me the way I needed her to; she often needed or demanded that I care for her.
Please don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying that strong people aren't wounded. I'm saying that strong people can recognize they're wounded, and they work hard at trying not to make others responsible for those wounds. My mom couldn't do this. She made me take care of her. I did it because I wanted her to love me. But now that I've become me, and not her miniature, I'm finding that her love was conditional.

(NO: it has not escaped me that my distrust of mothers my age is akin to my own mother sliming me with her needs. Like she erased me so I could take care of her, so I am raining my neurosis all over my lovely friends and perfect strangers who are mothers, and showering them with distrust that they haven't earned. God, the shit we carry around on this planet, it is tough to deal with. This is what I'm saying.)
The strong black mother rhetoric that came out of that storyteller last night, I choked on it. It sent me fleeing into the night, underdressed, walking through Lincoln Park looking for somewhere I could be that was warm, or looking for things I could see that would distract me from how cold and nervous and just plain sad and mad I was.

Walking up Southport off Clybourn Avenue, I looked into people's dark windows, passed a couple huddled on a front stoop, talking softly, and considered going back, hoping that my restless ambling had wasted enough time to spare me the rest of that story. At the corner of Webster and Southport, I remembered what this woman had said in a meditation workshop that I attended this weekend. She was talking about walking meditation, and that sometimes we need to move on the Earth Mother, to show her our love and to ask her for what we need. "Imagine your need--peace, love, joy, whatever it is," she said, "imagine your foot as a great stamp. Ink it with your heart. With every step that you take imagine yourself pressing that word into the Earth, so that if you looked behind you, you'd see it written out in your footsteps." She gave us a mudra to use for our hands, and talked about keeping our gaze only a few feet in front of us. "You don't want to take in what's around you on this walk, you want to stay internal."
What the hell. This is what I should have been doing the whole time, I thought to myself. It's unlikely that the sidewalk is going to belittle my dietary choices and try to make me ashamed of my bdoy. So I imagined "healing" on the bottom of my sandals so thin I feel like Jesus when I wear them, in a bright blood red that would glow in the night like lasers. One step at a time, I walked, healing, healing healing, in the sidewalk past the salon and the fancy furniture store, past the Potbellys and the bar on the corner with the red neon sign. When I got to the light, it turned green, and so I slowly walked, healing healing healing, across the crosswalk at Clyborn Avenue. It took me nearly the whole 30 seconds.
Clybourn Avenue looks nothing like Haleakela. But really, it might be my favorite place to put one foot in front of the other.
So I don't know if I'd suggest walking meditation late at night in a strange neighborhood with no i.d. or means of contacting others. It wasn't the safest thing I'd ever done--at least, not until I started meditating. Once I started walking healing, I felt less at risk. I felt like I was asking for something, and that the universe was going to take care of me, and everything would be okay. When I got back to the wine bar, several of my friends had burst out the door laughing, signaling to me that I'd avoided whatever I thought I was going to hear.

So I still don't trust my mother; she's hurt me really badly, and as recently as this week, she continues to do so. And I say, somewhat contritely, that I still don't understand, or fully believe in, whatever it is that makes women like me become mothers. But at least I was able to walk healing around the block, rather than fume or cry or rage. I was able to breathe and ask the planet to rise up to meet me and to be there when I put my foot down. If you look close, you might be able to see my red footprints.
I believe in meditation. It's slow, like the way seasons change, but I believe in it. Do I feel healed yet? Nope. Not today. Maybe tomorrow.