Strength, Courage and Wisdom: The Makings of an Urban Teacher

In this article, Carla Cherry shares her personal and professional evolution, divulging how she helps students actualize their humanity and academic success.  It’s an intimate look into the makings of an English/Language Arts teacher, and the difference she is trying to make in students’ lives within the NYC educational system.

Fundamental to her familial fabric was first acquiring knowledge of self.  Her mother taught her to read at age 2 ½. Later obtaining his Bachelor’s degree in Black Studies, Carla’s father surrounded the family with resources centering on African and African American culture and history.  For Carla, school “didn’t really emphasize African American heritage,” becoming an impetus to read widely, serving as “a catalyst for me to get into education, to share what I learned.”

Carla as an infant.
Carla as an infant.

Several experiences ministered to Carla choosing teaching as a profession.  Attending a lecture with her father, Carla met Dr. Adelaide Sanford, Vice Chancellor Emeritus of the New York State Board of Regents.  A phone conversation with Dr. Sanford informed Carla’s ethos of giving back to the community.  “I always admired her activism in the field of education.” “If she could give the best of herself to our youth, why couldn’t I do the same?”  She tutored while a teenage member of Co-op City chapter’s of the National Council of Negro Women.   She attended the prestigious and selective Bronx High School of Science, but recalls constantly defending people of color in class discussions; such insularity she did not want her future students enduring.  Attending Spelman College further inspired her career choice. She credits two professors, Dr. Donna Akiba Harper and Dr. Judy Gebre-Hiwet, with her literary acculturation and instigating within her the passion to hone her writing, namely to be exact with her words and employ the formal writing process in designing well supported effective arguments.

Carla in high school.
Carla in high school.

In 1993, Carla graduated Spelman College, returning to NYC as a single mom working part time.  Enrolling at New York University in 1995, she completed her Masters of Arts in Public Education, and began teaching in 1996.  Serving 17 years within the NYC Department of Education, she taught in middle and high schools, currently teaching at Innovations Diploma Plus High School, a transfer high school model targeting over-aged and under-credited students with educational opportunities and social support.

Carla's graduation picture from Spelman College.
Carla’s graduation picture from Spelman College.

Pedagogically, Carla fosters and facilitates students in (1) interpreting texts, (2) using writing as a tool, and (3) participating within various audiences and media. Students are (1) generating group reactions to quotes excerpted from a text, (2) selecting quotes and interpreting them individually in double entry journals, (3) responding on a discussion blog about themes within a class text, (4) creating monologues in the persona of a character, (5) crafting a poetic character sketch modeled on William Carlos William’s “This is Just to Say,” (6) arranging in small groups fragmented excerpts from a novel into dada poems,  (7) discussing characters’ actions from different perspectives and (8) constructing and writing formal literary arguments.  Her methods prove successful; annually the majority of her students pass the NYS ELA Regents exam.  It’s important to note the particular population with whom Carla is experiencing success; the majority of her students have previously dropped out of other high schools, range in age from their late teens to early twenties, and have struggled with reading and writing.

Students read books “they would not otherwise be exposed to.” Included are African American titles A Piece of Cake, Sula, and My Daddy was a Numbers Runner, international works The Kite Runner and Persepolis, and books about tense family dynamics including When I Was Puerto Rican and Bastard out of Carolina.  Her classroom is a place to explore and contemplate the world from divergent points of view, some not always palatable or comfortable, sometimes winning students over, sometimes experiencing their opposition. “If I am preparing them for the real world, you can’t always run away from something you might think is boring or uncomfortable.  Sometimes you have to face it and open yourself up to other ideas and other people.”

Carla’s classroom brokers connections across social and technological contexts.   Recently she participated in a study group offered by the New York City Writing Project using the online forum “Youth Voices.”  Her students discussed class texts, recorded their writing processes and progress, and shared obstacles encountered in their research, culminating in posting their essays online “so that they can see the evidence of the work they have done in a public space.”

Also a poet, writing poetry is “a way for me to understand my life, the world and my place in it.”  Inspired by her cousin giving her a book of self-published poetry after her father’s death, Carla self-published her first book, Gnat Feathers and Butterfly Wings, and a compilation CD with her cousin, jazz musician Eric McPherson. Proceeds from her book and promotional goods were donated to charity.

Carla 3

As a single mom Carla balanced work with remaining active in her son’s school activities while cultivating his evolving writing interests.  He was a semi-finalist in the Knicks annual poetry slam, a student in a black male initiative supporting young men writing poetry resulting in a performance at the Nuyorican Café, and a participant in the Urban Word Summer Institute.  He is currently a sophomore at SUNY Purchase.

Carla learned from her family to use knowledge to emancipate self and others, which she is passing on onto her son and generations of students.  Hers is an unsung narrative.

Below are two poems from Carla’s publication Gnat Feathers & Butterfly Wings (© 2008, Wasteland Press).

To order Carla’s book and audio CD, please go to Amazon.com or BN.com.

Anike

As she models her

brand new brand name

dress

in the mirror,

I watch.

She gives her chocolate brown

kinky twists

a toss

so her hair can fly.

She spins

to feel the wisp of cool air

against her butterscotch skin.

She smiles

and calls herself

the cutest girl in the world.

Shielding my eyes

from her sparkling aura

I shake my head

and my index finger.

Stop that, I say

Thinking modesty is noble.

But then again,

As I look at my life

I am glad my niece believes.

Maybe she won’t end up 

with her self-esteem all black and blue. 

The Anteroom

Baby, I must tell you

I can’t be the type

to eat

a plum, or a 

peach,

or an apple

before it’s ripe.

Though you desire my dainty meats,

a pure heart and motive is what I seek.

Love is more than honeyed lickings,

strawberry cream,

and appetent sighs.

I do want you,

but caress my thoughts before my thighs.

Fondle my aspirations,

my breasts won’t disappear.

The small of back can wait,

knead my doubts and fears.

Explore my world,

Then, take me to heaven.

This article is also featured in the recent online edition of Bronze Magazine (except photos and poetry).   Please go to http://bronzemagonline.com/strength-courage-and-wisdom-the-makings-of-an-urban-teacher/

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Fellowship at 2012 NYC Fashion Week: Sisters Celebrating Sisters

2012 NYC Fashion Week, Sarahi Showcase

Traditionally, NYC Fashion Week impressed me as an exclusive event.  The crème de la crème reveal and show off their dernier cri and totemic textiles. A-listers are awash in worship from photographic flashes.  The illuminati offer praises like flowers at feet of fellow elite.  Those of us who have no anchor in the sea of high fashion will rely on the reports of the select few broadcasts allowed harbor and entrance.  Somehow this particular Thursday night the stars aligned, because I was given access to such a coveted event. What I would encounter was far from the images and assumption I initially endorsed.

At first, I felt as though I was “crashing” a selective soiree.  Working in education, and now a stay at home mother expecting my second child, such pathways rarely make for opportune interceptions with the chic.  It seemed irregular, unlikely, to sit alongside “those” who regularly lined the esteemed runways.    I wasn’t a blip on the elite radar of the houses of Monique Lhuillier, Michael Kors or Ralph Lauren, so being a guest would be out of the question, or even the assistant of esteemed stylists like Rachel Zoe.  Benevolently, my ticket came from the heart of a sister editor-in-chief, Shawn Chavis, whose gratitude to her staff and writers at Bronze Magazine gave us entre into this grand world, landing us at the premiere Sarahi showcase at RSVP, which her magazine was sponsoring.

I didn’t go to be seen, temporarily immortalized in this week’s tabloids and newspapers.  Attending for me was an honor, as I would meet fellow women writers, affix flesh and blood to online personality, whose fellowship was garnered mostly online due to our remote locations.  Working as a contributing writing and copy editor, Shawn has given me unwonted space to transition from working as teacher, professor and consultant to fulfill my aspiration of freelance writing.  Emelyn Stuart and I had been corresponding on Facebook in anticipation of our initial meeting; first reading about her in a previous issue of Bronze Magazine, her humor and receptive spirit made me excited to meet her. And others I would meet would become for me tour guides of dreams, unexpected touchstones of inner pain and the strength, courage, and wisdom that emanate from them.

I arrived early to RSVP, erring on the side of caution give my long commute by public transportation. I landed midst the hum of tuxedoed wait staff priming final touches and hoisting the poster of sponsors, greeters coordinating guest lists, and models practicing their many faces and stances.   Photographers, writers, and support staff buzzed away in preparatory tasks. The hive was hopping. Yet in the mix I felt welcomed, as people scooting by me made time to pause, smile, and even say hello. They provided a welcoming atmosphere I was not expecting.

By chance one such smile came from VJ Ameliaismore, a local celebrity. Instantly we started talking. She became a guide for me that evening, not just for that event but as an example of someone diligently on a mission and living to fulfill a dream. Like a big sister to little sister, she shared her life history and work, funny stories about being the single mom of a son, and a short retrospective on her life as a teacher, model, and business woman. It was her intimate sharing against the backdrop of the busyness and buzz that powered the pondering of my own dreams, and hollowing a space to wish her dreams their deserved flight and height.  Quickly disappearing backstage, she pointed me to where Shawn was.  I embarked to meet my colleague and mentor.

I recognized Shawn as soon as I saw her. Her spirit casts an aura of welcome and receptivity, even while standing still in the chaos of patrons indulging the open bar and cocktail hour (alas, how I craved sampling the sushi and steak tartare).   She shared her gratitude for the work I’ve done, particularly for last-minute copy editing. Here I was meeting the fountainhead of an inspirational magazine thanking ME. It was wondrous and wonderful to finally meet her, feeling far more like homecoming.  Her grace and warmth were contagious, enveloping me, like dwelling in the company of a dear friend.

Me and Shawn Chavis, Editor-in-Chief, Bronze Magazine

Standing right next to her was Emelyn Stuart.  I recognized her by the cool confidence she exudes, and in the striped dress (inside joke).  Media magnate and prolific film producer, her repertoire and resume remained quiet within her.  She didn’t greet me with her resume or reputation. She doesn’t bring them into our conversation at all. Instead, she bestows an authentic invitation to learn about one another.  In fact, she asks ME questions that have me since thinking about where and how I want to direct my future endeavors in writing.  She offered advice on how to gain sponsorship for my blog to build its readership and reputation. Being around her was like being released to explore and dig deeper into one’s dreams, and I found myself rattling off all that I wanted to be and become in this new chapter of my career and life.  She offered her phone number and suggested we keep in touch.

Even more than what I learned from the outpour of sisters like Shawn and Emelyn is learning what we can offer others.  Before the start of the show, acclaimed model and business woman Njie Sabik informed us of the silent auction going on as well, with proceeds going to two charitable organizations.  She bravely shared that one was created in tribute to her mother; the designer, Suzette Kelly, earlier informed us Njie just buried her mother days before the show.  Such character to remain committed to participating in the show and disclosing such a personal tragedy marks Njie as evidence of resilience.  After the show, she was swept away for a barrage of photos. Between the flashes I snuck in to share with her how I was moved by her celebration of her mother. I told how I too lost my mother to cancer (AML), and offered for inspiration that eventually better days do come. I relayed my admiration of how brave she was to disclose what she did, staying committed to the show, and that I believed her mother would be proud of her for her endeavors.  Njie embraced me in a long understanding hug. It felt fulfilling to know that even in sorrow there is the root of kinship, and that even as strangers we can each be healing balm for one another.  Not to mention her power on a runway. She rips it with methodical presentation and presence. She owns a room when she enters, and leaves it mesmerized when she exits.

Njie Sabik at 2012 NYC Fashion Week
Njie Sabik at 2012 NYC Fashion Week

The House of Sarahi definitely lit up the night.  Yet this night proved more to be a walk through the power and potential of sisterhood than retinal reverie.  Amelia, Shawn, Emelyn and Njie irradiated my soul. I returned home, and in high heels and red swing dress, resumed the maternal work of feeding my son and rocking him to sleep. Out of sheer gratitude I thanked my husband who worked from home that day for this once in a lifetime opportunity.

Back to work . . .inspired.

Suzette Kelly (far left), designer of Sarahi, with models

Unleashing the Beast from Within: Movie Review of “Animal Kingdom”

Multi-award winning crime drama “Animal Kingdom” (Sony Pictures Classics, 2010) shines a focused light on the tension, turmoil, and tenacity of a family bonded by their familial investment . . . in criminal enterprise.  Enter the Cody family, consisting of grandmother, three brothers, estranged daughter and her teenage son.   Don’t anticipate a conventional family like that of The Cleavers, Bradys, or Cunninghams, or idyllic scenes of Sunday dinners or family vacations.  All is not what it appears to be, as the façade of family barely gilds twisted ruminations.

Instead, we are thrust smack into the tangled dynamics of this deranged family, and the perverse loyalty shaping and shaming it.  Narratives of twisted maternal instincts, sinister sibling rivalry, bilious behaviors, benevolent friendships and coming of age are slowly unraveled and witnessed.  Matriarch Janine “Smurf” Cody showers her sons with a love that borders on the incestuous, and yet harbors a diabolical willingness to sacrifice some cubs to preserve those most cherished by the pride.  Actions taken by eldest brother Andrew “Pope” to protect him and the family are at times paternal and psychotic.  Teenage grandson Joshua “J” Cody comes to live with the family after his mother overdoses, but realizes that he has to grow up fast and choose allies carefully, whether police or kin, if he is to survive.

The movie will not belittle your sensibility with an admonishingly bow-tied retelling of the adage “I am my brother’s keeper.” It is replaced by revealing brute savagery that the family inflicts on one another to preserve the herd, no matter the sacrifice.  The intertwined and wicked relationships unravel the extent and cost the members of the Cody family will pay in preserving the frays of family.

The movie will not distract you with scenes of armed bank robberies to titillate and fulfill our propensity for special effects and bedazzlement.  Movies such as “Set it Off” and “Heat” do a unique job of using such scenes to propel plot and inform characterization. Instead, a montage of bank camera photos during opening credits takes care of this revelation.  What is more deeply and intimately investigated are the aftershocks of crime, its residual impact on loyalty.

It’s damn near sinister and shameful the extent kin will go, and blood be shed, to procure peace. Everyone fears one another.

With rightful cause.

The Cost to be the “Boss”: Kelsey Grammer’s Stellar Portrayal of Monster and Man

The Starz series “Boss” unfolds with immediate access into Chicago’s Mayor Thomas Kane’s Achilles’ heel.  In an arranged secret meeting, he finds out his fateful diagnosis. The clock starts ticking.  There isn’t much time. Yet it is this very alchemy of electoral ambition and corporeal deterioration that make for compelling drama.  Kane is a well-crafted villain who is simultaneously vicious and vulnerable, sinister and sympathetic.

It is knowing upfront the mayor’s deterioration that spawns an audience’s intrigue, for the mayor does not go gently into that good night.  Kane is an alluring character study.  Ruthless and lacerative, he weathers all tides as his kingdom rises and falls, falls and rises.  His prowess to manipulate is fascinating, wielding calculated and merciless vengeance over all who disobey him, inclusive of kindred and his own political inner circle. Even innocent people who unfortunately help his health are thrown under the bus.

The beauty of “Boss” is that as audience, we are made privy to not only the king’s ambitions but also his subjects’. We are given access to their subjection and subversion.  Immediately we are thrust into a world of characters with rivaling complexity, coordinating and calculating their own moves within the chaotic milieu of a gubernatorial primary.  No one-dimensional characters here.  From office staff to family to foes, each has motives and agendas. Camouflaged and chameleonic does not begin to describe their orchestrated facades. It’s as if living in a Shakespearean tragedy, like that of King Lear, where family’s and statesmen’s loyalties are in constant flux and purchase. Morality and allegiance are wantonly disregarded.

The characters are compelling because while they are somewhat puppets of Kane, each resounds with their own uniquely tailored dilemmas and demons. An estranged drug-addicted daughter, now venerable priest of a local Catholic church and director of medical programs at its local poorly funded clinic, works to reconcile her past by promoting messianic and charitable good, even if done through unconventional and illegal means. An ambitious state treasurer, handpicked and endorsed by Kane to be the next governor, gets ahead of his post, and consequently, his unbridled lust, political naiveté, and easily purchased loyalty place him in dire and compromising positions. It all makes for intriguing viewing.

Masterful and crafty as a weathered chess player, Kane anticipates the moves of others before the seed germ has begun to sprout.  He calculates their moves from jump, before they even touch the first pawn.  He brings people in check should they garner the audacity to position their own ambitions before his.  He has played their games before, so much so that their moves pulse and proliferate in the marrow of his bones. He engages the defense of some political foes and defenestration of others, all to the purpose of his glory and gain.  He antiseptically disinfects against all others’ self-determination and self-service.

Yet while Kane in many respects is the devil incarnate, he is a character not incapacitated from conducting self-study.  As his disease periodically peeks through in public speeches and private conferences, he takes steps to monitor its unfurling. He records its manifestations to capture and research what leaks out and what remains. Through these intermittent windows into his soul, we as witnesses sympathize with his helplessness and pity his body’s betrayal.

Accentuating “Boss” is its skillful cinematography, particularly the use of soliloquy to afford the audience intimate access into Kane’s mental machinery.  Kane’s ramblings are like Shakespearean soliloquies that allow us to hear his inner meditations, as like the ravenous ruminations of Macbeth whose leprous ambition unravels his mind to see phantom daggers and the ghost of murdered ally Banquo.

Thomas Kane, the infamous mayor of Chicago, is unscrupulous. There is no person he will spare, no blood he will not shed (figuratively and literally), no ambition he will not dare, to insure his throne.

Which is why I can’t wait for Season 2 this Friday.

Game on.

Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus” as Metaphor: The Search, Seizure, and Salvation of Humanity

(Spoiler alert, elements of the plot will be revealed.)

The movie “Prometheus” accomplishes more than serving as a prequel to the “Alien” series.  Ridley Scott did an incredible piece of work in assembling complex storylines and impressive settings to create an odyssey of intellectual, moral, and spiritual wanderings.  What unfolds before us, and within us, is an exploration what it means to be human: its best, brilliant, base and brutal aspects.  In this movie review/literary analysis, I discuss how these aspects of humanity are explored and excavated throughout the movie.  As a spoiler alert, some characters and parts of the movie are revealed . . .

The Search

“Prometheus” keenly conjures our need as humans to know and understand where we come from.  Are we created by our own decision? Are we created by higher powers? For what purpose?  These questions are what instigate archaeologists (husband and wife team) Shaw and Holloway to search the world for evidence of higher powers and origins greater than themselves, and business tycoon Weyland to coordinate their efforts along with his to find the source of humanity.  Yet while the search could be universally regarded as in the pursuit of greater good, not everyone’s goals for this search are universal and uniform.  Depending on the character, some like Shaw naively believe the mission is for promoting the greater good of all humankind, while others host singular selfish motivations exclusively for their personal gain.  Scott does complex surgical work in craftily interweaving characters’ agendas and ascents into a compelling mosaic of the symbiotic and parasitic relationships people form with one another toward the goal of knowing the origin of humans.

The Seizure

Not every character invests in a rightful and principled approach to acquiring an end goal.  While some offer and rely upon unconditional trust, others employ manipulation and deceit.  While some are selflessly motivated, others are myopically focused in achieving goals of personal gain, even at the harm and grave expense of others.  Enter the Weyland family: Peter Weyland, businessman and financier of the Prometheus expedition, Meredith Vickers who is both his daughter and the manager of the mission, and David, who while is an android, serves as a synthetic son and servant to both Weyland and Vickers.  Weyland personifies a king blind to whatever else exists strictly to pursue his ambition and emotional avarice.  He must meet his progenitor.  Even if it means exploiting his subordinate creation David, even if it means demoting his daughter to simply an unloved tool for his success, if there are costs and consequences to others, so be it.  Almost paralleling Shakespeare’s King Lear, Weyland’s offspring tell him the things he wants to hear, and comply with what he wants them to do, in an exploitation of that paternal relationship for self-seeking gain.  Yet Weyland is not a naïve king manipulated by his offspring. He too puts forth an agenda that exploits his offsprings’ talents toward his own self-serving end; David’s knowledge of the humanities and diverse languages, and higher order intelligence; Vickers singular allegiance to the completion of the mission and exacting leadership skills.

There is a predatory allegiance shared between Weyland, Vickers, and David.  Weyland’s offspring (Vickers literally, David metaphorically) each use their relationship with their paternal progenitor, their “father” for their personal gain. David cloaks the fulfilling of his own selfish ambitions under the fulfillment of his ailing and elderly progenitor’s dying wish to meet his own progenitor (whom Shaw has dubbed “The Engineers”).  For example, David seeks to be more human, using his benefactor’s access to resources to learn more about humans, spanning the benign such as researching their movies, languages, and grooming techniques.  He constantly works to reconcile wanting to be human yet being a creation of human hands. He is of them yet not of them, which is constantly made painfully clear in how others subordinate and disrespect him.

Consequently, David becomes progressively sinister in exploiting his benefactor, his resources and the crew he hired.  It is through his unique investigatory research that he tests his hypothesis of what exactly makes one human (and the extent he surpasses them). He commits inhumane experiments such as infiltrating sleeping crew members’ dreams, he detours from the expedition crew for his own explorations (and extractions of alien genetic material), and conducts genetic experiments upon unsuspecting crew members (introducing alien material unknowingly to their bodies).  David, though exploited, exploits his position as a subordinated son, gifted with intelligence and knowledge, to maneuver himself so that he researches humans, interacts with them, and uses them as leverage to explore and learn about both them and the Engineers.   Almost in the fashion of Shakespeare’s Richard III, as the younger brother Richard manipulates everyone to steal the throne from his older brother Edward, David manipulates any and everyone to ascend into a place knowing more about humankind than even humans know about themselves. Yet David and Vickers are not objectified offspring whose acquiesce goes gently into that good night of their father’s dream (and as it will turn out, their nightmares).  Both David and Vickers know their father’s disregard and relegation of them to servants to his dream, but still continue to vie for their progenitor’s affirmation.

Vickers, in Shakespearean fashion, shares a conflicting love of her father.  Weyland’s exclusive devotion to meeting his progenitor has alienated Vickers from him and caused the death of a father/daughter relationship, one that in some small part Vickers desperately wants as she demonstrates in one scene kneeling before him and kissing his hand (only to receive back his clinching knuckles).  It is a relationship of dedication yet saturated with venom and vengeance.  Like Hamlet who pursues the business of avenging his father’s death, and yet feels both love and scornful detest because of his mother’s actions (marrying his father’s murderer), Vickers’ actions too harbor both love and scorn of her father.  She asserts herself to the crew as the person who makes sure that everyone does their job to fulfill the mission (the double entendre being to get her father to meet his maker).  And, although Vickers secretly salivates to ascend the throne upon her father’s eminent death, she just as importantly seeks his love and affirmation.

Godlike and Messianic Complexes 

In many instances throughout the movie there is a seizure of others’ humanity for exploitation.  Weyland believes that he can buy himself into meeting his progenitors, financing a mission and manipulating the talents, convictions, and intentions of others to that end.   David believes himself deserving of respect and regard by his human counterparts, thinking himself at least equal and in many respects superior considering his learnedness of their knowledge, ideas, and habits.  However he is still relegated to not being human, treated as a subordinate, and most of all, remains out of place. As a result, David exploits the relationships they share with one another for his personal gain, even going so far as to compromise select crew members’ health in a test of the limits of their humanity. He also takes it upon himself to conduct covert explorations of the Engineer’s technology separate from the expedition and without full disclosure.

 

The Salvation of Humanity

Needless to say, the crew find themselves in harrying situations, both by their own design and outside forces.  It is through these times that Scott’s “Prometheus” illustrates the resolve that humans call upon to save fellow humans from harm or destruction.  Shaw calls upon her faith to inform her decisions about how to advance the good of humankind.  She demonstrates this throughout her work as a team member of the expedition.  Some realize in moments of peril the ultimate in sacrifices need to be made to serve and protect a greater good, a good that only they can provide.  Janek, the captain of the ship, answers such a crucial call, sacrifices himself and his crew so that others might be saved.  Holloway and Shaw each sacrifice their bodies so that harm does not come to the crew or beyond.  For others like David, upon realizing their past selfish actions have made for dire consequences, they avail their talents and resources wholeheartedly.

In all, “Prometheus” is a movie that compels one to not only reflect on the state of humanity on the outside (as we have much to contemplate given what is occurring worldwide), but also on the inside.  What makes us human? How do we know? What will we do when it is tested? Like any great movie, this one still leaves me with questions.  In the movie, why did the Engineers create humans, and then make the decision to destroy them? Exactly HOW does the myth of Prometheus connect with the topics and themes of the movie?

 

And finally, a question that I ponder outside the movie is this . . . can the search for the origin of humankind occur without first an examination of one’s own self?

The Lone Crusaders of “Valhalla Rising” and “The Book of Eli”: Preternatural Archetypes and Iconic Rebels

This won’t be a review of these two films evaluating their merits and detractions.  More so, this blogpost is an investigative pondering, a thinking out loud about the power of movies serving as introspective lenses into ourselves.  After seeing “Valhalla Rising” a few days ago, it has not left my bones or cognitive preoccupation.  The brooding landscape, the haunting music, the brutal yet beguiling treatment of proverbial conflicts (man versus man, man versus society), the aesthetic achievement of a  movie not ending with a conventionally bow tied happy ending, have moved me.  I am responding to a movement in my marrow, an archetypal and iconic familiarity implanted by my father, now resurrected.

To give context, In “Valhalla Rising,” the clairvoyant Norseman protagonist, One Eye, is introduced as a captive exploited for the gladiator-style sport of combating and bludgeoning fellow captives.  One Eye is temporarily compliant with his slavery and defers to his captor’s bloodlust for combat.  He is then sold by his captor to another who hopes to use him to stave off the Christian Crusaders who have begun the onslaught of whomever they deem infidels.   However, One Eye brutally takes back his freedom, and resumes his quest, accompanied now by the boy (called The Boy) who provided food while in captivity and will provide his voice, as One Eye is mute.   Ironically, they encounter a group of Crusaders embarking for Jerusalem and join them.  Then when the ship is trapped by obscuring mist and stilled currents, some crew interpret the presence of The Boy as an omen of their demise.  Others are resolved in perceiving both One Eye and The Boy as a means to a supernatural confirmation of their quest, with One Eye providing messianic-like security.  The men then land upon a taiga, and begin to realize that they are nowhere near the Holy Land of Jerusalem for which their chartered their course and agendas.  They encounter aboriginals, as well as the fraying interior of the deepest and dilemma-ridden aspects of themselves, leading to revelatory unfolding.

Stories about lone crusaders and the conflicts they encounter fascinate me.  The preservation of self despite the infliction or indifference of others, the indestructible resolve to uphold and defend what is believed even at cost to self, are compelling narratives.  One Eye is embedded within an interwoven tapestry of two conflicts—man against man, and man against society.   One Eye does not willfully engage or pursue conflicts with others, or deliberately position himself to take a side for his own advantage.  In his quietude he remains resolute to keep moving, resilient in accepting and fulfilling his premonitions.  Beholding to what seems to be a calling to something greater, he combats through the shadows and valleys of others’ intentions, expectations, and manipulations.  This instinctive perseverance and acceptance of his fate are what confounds some characters and convicts others.

One Eye’s obligatory devotion to fulfilling his premonitions and the path they lay reminds me of my father.  My father was a man who availed his limbs and logic to providing me the best life possible (on earth and heaven).   Specifically, my father upheld the belief that it was his responsibility to instill within me religious practices and spiritual teachers to inform my life going forward.  The most indelible impression he makes upon me are what he taught me about my origin.  He had a way of explaining that we are translation of a divine intention.  Dad taught me about God and Christ, and many Biblical figures to serve me in life as guideposts for my living.  His favorite king was David, a man chosen by God to build and defend His kingdom knowing in his walk of earthen life he would both travail from and prevail against his personal foibles and fallibility.  Jesus impressed him because of His determination despite any and all obstacles to do His Father’s work.  Perhaps the parallel between One Eye and my father’s teachings lay in the fact that regardless of what the eye/s can see, there is a life purposefully divined and driven beyond physical unyieldingness, and to resolve to see and live life beyond circumstance strengthens one’s ability to do so sedulously and steadfastly.

Since seeing “Valhalla Rising,” I have also begun to reflect upon how I was also moved by the movie “The Book of Eli”.  The latter is also a movie that moves my marrow me because of its theme of sight beyond circumstance.  As like One Eye, Eli is diminished in his sight (he is completely blind).  However, Eli’s blindness does not mentally, spiritually or physically deter him.  Instead, his ordaining to deliver the last Bible propels Eli.  The sight garnered by conviction emboldens both characters to resist surrendering to physical limitation or societal intimidation; in Eli’s case, Carnegie’s hunting and assaulting of him to acquire the physical Bible in his care.  Throughout the movie, Eli invokes and demonstrates his Biblically-informed and infused sight to traverse an apocalyptic wasteland, the degeneration of others, and the attempted exploits of demagogue Carnegie to exploit and kill him exclusively for gain.  Unfortunately, Carnegie’s greed and thirst for power literally shrink his sight to only register what is physical.  The Bible Eli carries is written in Braille, which Carnegie cannot read and therefore exploit to wield his power.  The Bible that Eli transports is actually committed to memory: he succeeds bringing it to a repository and printing press housed in Alcatraz before succumbing to his injuries.

My fascination with both protagonists is that the fragile meets the fierce.  Despite what seems to be limits in the flesh, the execution of their beliefs is what avails them strength, courage and wisdom to continue pursuing their higher calling.  Each protagonist prevails against his own carnal limitation.  Despite the exploitation of others—attempted and executed—each remains undeterred to accomplish a goal greater than the obstacles that materialize and plague them.  They remind me of my father, whose spiritual sight helped him to prevail against affliction.  He taught me that we were born ordained to do special work on earth even before assuming earthly vessels, and celestially supported by the hierarchy of Heaven to complete it.    Who we are metaphorically, mystically, molecularly, and metabolically overshadows and overpowers  any obstacle we will experience in our walk on earth (perhaps this is also why movies like ”Contact” resound in me too . . .I’ll save that for another day).  This teaching he embedded in me informs and instructs me some 15 years after his passing.  Ironically, he died just nine days after my Baptism, and though for me premature, I have never believed this to be an accident as a surrender and restful return.

His job done on earth, as it is in Heaven.

Woman, Wife and Mother: An Evolving Intersection

As a new wife and mother, I experience jubilee and juggling.  I receive constant fulfillment yet expend breath and best guesses finishing challenges.  I stand in an intersection of past/present/future.  This triptych daily positions me to negotiate divergent responsibilities, prior obligations and new undertakings, obliging yet unifying them all.  Hopefully my intimacies, epiphanies, and suggestions offer footstools into your own possibilities.

Professionally, my career spans being a high school ELA teacher, assistant professor, educational consultant and fledging writer.   I’ve enjoyed fortune and mistakes on my own terms. Then I met my husband, and with him anticipated blessings and unanticipated compromises unfolded.

While single, we’ve been rightfully selfish with our lives, doing what we want to do when we want to do it and how we want to do it.  Consequently, we’ve come to this goal of incorporating flesh and future with dissimilar tastes in music, different perspectives on how to manage money, divergent expectations on best uses of time, disparate notions around planning for the future, etc. You get the picture.  It’s a clumsy walk.  Now we have to collaborate in little and big decisions.  Identify priorities for our relationship and agree upon ways to fulfill them.  Budget money for immediate expenses AND allocate it toward long term goals.   Learn what it means to be a partner while also honoring and providing space for each other’s independence.  Accept flaws and mistakes without later using them as leverage against one another.  Work in partnership raising our first child.

After the marital oath of cleaving as one flesh, our grafted limbs are evolving to thrive collaboratively.  But we have to share in creating answers.  What do we need to do to prepare for the future?  What are the best approaches to solve problems?  How do we nurture interdependence and maintain independence?  What do we lose in order to gain? As woman AND wife, a pressing duality I constantly address is how to prosper us AND be true to myself?

Here’s what I am discovering . . .

Being a wife is a new role. Grow into it.  You don’t simply step into the role of a wife like a wedding dress. You evolve to fulfill it.  So don’t clutter your growth into this role with assumptions or comparisons.  Let go of ideals and magazine exaggerations.   Explore and invest in what it means for you to be a wife for yourself and to your partner.  Give yourself permission and time to experience, evaluate, and even revise accordingly.

Dialogue.  Devote space and time to broach and disclose fears, concerns, and dilemmas.  Uncomfortable topics that go undiscussed (like money, parenting, a need for quality time alone, etc.) eventually fester.  Making them transparent and in the open diffuses their cancerous potential to leach from your primary goal to grow as allies.  But be careful not to bulldoze your partner into meetings.  While I thought it efficient to have weekly conference calls while planning our wedding—agenda and all—my husband thought these meetings at times were burdensome overkill.

Preserve what is personally important to you.  It is very easy (and implicitly expected) that upon becoming a wife to sacrifice personal happiness for the “greater good” of marriage and family.  Yet if you are not happy, what fruits of yourself can you offer others?  Marriage and parenting WILL impact the amount of time you can devote to fulfilling your passions, but foregoing and sacrificing them altogether is an unhealthy solution.  Find ways to maintain what feeds your core.  While now I have to fit writing in between schedules I have with my child and husband (like writing blogs at 2am), doing so maintains my wholeness.

I wasn’t tooled with blueprints to structure this marriage.  At times I fray at edges and peel at margins. What I am learning from the daily walk is that I unfold the answers through folded hands (physical and spiritual).  Surrendering to the unfolding helps me carry out and accomplish these roles as best I can.

(This blogpost occurs simultaneously in MBAMOM’s May 2012 newsletter as “Wife and Mother: What I Wonder”).

(Artwork: Woman Thinking by Stephanie Clair)

To read others’ responses, or to write your own, please click the red button below.  

To read previous posts scroll to bottom right side of page and click on title of choice.


Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman Redux: Are We a Nation Rhetorically at War with Itself?

What do we as a nation think of the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case?   Here are recent posts from CNN’s website covering different aspects of the Trayvon Martin case.[1][2]

you know: what a good scapegoat for blacks to point at and cry racism.

P41: Caucasians are liars, murderers, thieves, rapists, sodomites, false witnesses, blasphemers, gluttons, idolaters, envious, lazy, swindlers, haters of GOD ALMIGHTY, and of the ORIGINAL BLACK MAN, BLACK WOMAN, AND CHILD.

Turbokorper: …there once was a community of thugs
…who were really good at pimpin’ and selling drugs
…we just move away,
…hopin’ they will stay,
…in the squalor, the crime and the bugs.

Lagergeld: Zimmerman is a brown Mestizo like the average Mexican yet CNN and the other networks keep pimping the lie that he is white to promote such BS agendas as this and to somehow twist words, journalistic accuracy, and reality itself to make some freak show tie-in to Emmett Till.  This is Communist News Network. As you were, Comrades.

Kimip: Far more Republicans (56%) than Democrats (25%) say there has been too much coverage of Martin’s death, Big surprise there. They would only care if it was someone from corporate America that was shot and killed. 

Michwill: If you’re not a part of the black community you need to keep your opinions to yourself. We don’t comment on the priests that molest the white altar boys or all the pedophiles in your communities or even when the white husband decides to kill himself and the whole family!!

Justice Has Occurred: I just read some of Trayvon’s published tweets. He was an inmate waiting to happen. Putting him down now may have saved some lives…black and white.

Recent responses to the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman dynamic have clearly plucked a raw nerve, suggesting that this case has repercussions and ripples extending beyond that fatal night.  In some respects, the case has us all examining our experience of race and ethnicity in this shared country, particularly around civil liberties, law enforcement, due process, interactions with other ethnic groups and the perceptions we believe others hold of us based on our own positionality.  This is a case that harnesses within both individuals and groups a pulsing plethora of emotions and positions: vulnerable, victimized, and vindicated.   It is hard to not take aspects of the case personally and be impacted by them.

But as suggested by the smattering of the comments above, there is an undercurrent that is surfacing.  That facts and aspects of the case are being chiseled into reactions that are then used as leverage to hurt and harm a stranger or unsuspecting group.  What particularly resonates with me are some of the personal attacks that people have hurled at one another.  It’s made for a charged atmosphere of hurt feelings and caustic retaliation, the flinging of accusations and assumed political agendas.

Yet I wonder about the impact of such flagrant and rampant personalization, how it is churning and festering within us as citizens of a shared nation, leading us into then maliciously attacking specific individuals and groups. To some degree, it is human nature to hurt when harmed (a scorned lover, a bullied child).  But to sharpen understandings of the case into weapons to inflict undue damage is making for unfortunate fallout.  A failing of compassion.  A missed opportunity to understand and be understood.

The inflation of the case whereby people are using it to insult, instigate, implicate, and inculcate fellow humans does nothing to further understanding the incident, the case, each other or us as a nation.  But what the hurling of such incendiary comments, abuse of facts from the case, and exploitation of stereotypes does is beg us to look into the mirror.  Why are we using this case to purposefully and deliberately disrobe, dismiss and denigrate?  Why are we fashioning the hurling of hurt? What benefit manifests from adding insult to injury?  What long-lasting good comes from using this case to leverage insults against fellow humans? What do any of us score, or even win?

Why are the branches attacking the body?

This is not to suggest anything against our right to free speech.  This does detract from the historical, social and cultural backdrop against which this case occurs.  But we can retain emotive clarity.  When I read such comments as those listed above, and see their growing proliferation like dandelion spawns in blistery winds, I wonder where else they will land.

And, like the nature of weeds, what potential for life they will begin to choke.


[1] Study: Republicans, whites more tired of Trayvon Martin coverage. CNN.com. April 5, 2012. http://www.cnn.com/2012/04/04/justice/florida-teen-shooting/index.html?hpt=ju_t4

[2] Trayvon’s Death: Echoes of Emmett Till? CNN.com. March 24th, 2012.  http://inamerica.blogs.cnn.com/2012/03/24/trayvons-death-echoes-of-emmett-till/comment-page-3/#comments

From Native Son to Invisible Man: Reflections on Trayvon Martin and Rearing a Black Man-Child in America

Early this morning I was drafting a guest blog post about what it is like to be a new wife and mother. The wife version I completed, and just when I was to start drafting the part about raising a son, I read several posts and articles about Trayvon Martin’s murder. And I read Sheree’s FB post that ignited my heart and fright. 

What a tragedy of life and travesty of justice.

I then heard my son crying and went to check on him. He drifted back to sleep, except for grabbing my thumb which he would not let go of even while sleeping. After reading of this event, it moves me even more that my son trusts me to comfort him, even in his sleep.

But I don’t trust the world to protect him. Or my husband.

I asked hubby while eating breakfast today to be careful, for he is someone’s son. And he is someone’s father.

George Zimmerman’s father advocated on his behalf, yet I wonder if George thought of the impact of his actions on Trayvon’s mother and father who would be affected by what he was about to do to their son. About the dangerous stereotype he was about to reinvigorate and perpetuate because of his skewed vigilantism (how can you claim self defense when you pursue someone despite the police dispatcher’s admonishment to not do so?). About the permission he took that was not his to take in the taking of life.

As he walks free. While many of us hold sons, husbands, fathers, uncles, and brothers tighter in our grasp.

It’s 2012, and black men continue to be a hunted endangered species.

I think I will be writing a different piece about what it is like to be a mother . . .

For the weeks and months to come, many will write about the tragedy of the murder of Trayvon Martin, and the travesty of justice they foresee as imminent.  The contemplations, discussions, and emotions will be broadened to encompass indignation toward Geraldo’s flippant “hoodie” defense (what happens when you dress a certain way), the desired resignation of the neophyte Sanford Chief of Police and examination of his department’s shoddy execution of investigation and due diligence, and musings over how long the slaying of a yet another Black youth will dwell in the nation’s conscious after mainstream media no longer broadcasts it.  Yet what’s begun to stir within me is an investigation of me, of the inner workings of the new intimate space within me called parent, of what I am responsible for doing in rearing my newborn son to endure (and survive) a current and post-Trayvon Martin era.

The excerpt above was the first of two Facebook posts I wrote emotively on March 19th after hearing about this young son’s death.  The holding of my own son, who arrived just a few short months ago, has suddenly become more intense, an honest reaction to a hellish circumstance.  But while my arms can for now shield his growing body, the eventuality is that he will outgrow them.  Although he will practice his first steps within the preparation, guidance, and sanctuary of my arms, the eventuality is that he will walk away from me into and within the world outside them.  If I have done my job well, he will be learned and equipped in how to stand on his own.  On his physical legs, yes. Yet I contemplate how best to support his standing with strategies for straddling his inherited duality; although he is spiritually and ancestrally a temple, he is a target socially, culturally, and historically.

The scrimmage fought between being a man-child of great potential and the caricature misinterpreted as being executable is a stark reality. It is alarming that prisons are built at a rate proportionate to students’ performance on elementary literacy tests, the notorious cradle-to-prison pipeline.  And many of us are now resorting (rightfully) to practicing with our sons how to interact with law enforcement (how to speak, how to posture, how not to exude being a “threat” or “menace”).  The gravity of protecting and harvesting a son (both my own and our collective) weighs on me.  I vacillate between which should “weigh” more—helping him to harness his holiness and hopes, or conduct regular drills with him on how to interface with the outer emboldened and armed law enforcement representatives and fanatics.  For this brief moment, I feel parenting duties prioritized to preserving his physical life, and once out of my arms’ reach how to effectively (ideally) do so on his own.  As my role as a parent daily unfolds, so does my quandary and question over what takes precedence in what to teach and educate.

Without Sanctuary, Lynching Photography in America, chronicles the epidemic lynching of yesteryear and its commercialization through postcards (yes, people could send well wishes to family on one side with the image of an incinerated and castrated body on the other).  Lynching, this cultural attitude legitimizing the denigration and objectification of black males and the abhorrent act manifesting from it, seems to be rearing its ugly head, with strange fruit again populating our nation’s fatigued trees (Sean Bell, Ramarley Graham, and those  whose lives ended suspiciously as chronicled by filmmaker Keith Beauchamp in “The Injustice Files: At the End of a Rope” to name a few, regrettably).   Trayvon’s death eerily echoes and harkens back to this era, as Zimmerman’s 911 calls serve as the prelude to the semi-automated lynching he was about to conduct.  Or has the era ever left us?

This is my initial reaction as a parent.  To save my offspring  from harm.  To guard what is of my flesh, my incubation.  To prepare him for a hostile world.  We know the risks of bringing forth a man-child in this land of promise (though not always of promises kept).  He is a native son, born into the milieu of fear, flight, and fate that is disproportionately slated for our young men.  He will have to make strategic decisions in his navigations and negotiations as an invisible man in these states.  Therefore, I wonder how much I must teach my son how much his body is and is not his.  What places he can and cannot be (and at what times).  What he can and cannot wear.  How he can and cannot speak.  I feel the pressure of teaching him that daily he will have to walk and breathe in duality.  To know it is his right to live by his own construction, but that such living will intersect and conflict with, as well as disrupt, others’ construction of him (and how people may consequently act on those constructions regardless of his innocence or best intentions).

Though Trayvon’s parents did not will his son to be a sacrificial lamb or martyr (nor would any parent of their lamb), they took the risk to release their son into the world; an innocent who went into the world alone was returned to them in a body bag.  However, his life and death harnessed and galvanized an insurrection and reflection bigger than himself.

But I/we as parents must be and remain brave and bold.

My infant son’s favorite position is being perched on my shoulders.  There, he steadies himself, hands and forearms braced against my shoulders.  His routine is first to peer over my shoulders, then emboldened, begins his ritual of incessantly searching out the world around him. Rapidly rotating from side to side, his eyes and head venture then fixate.  Venture, and then fixate.  Quickly that shoulder’s geography becomes a bore, and like a rock climber ambitiously leaping to a new rock, so does he.   I catch and cradle his search, support his navigation, lest he lose balance and fall from pursuing and practicing his ambition.

But this is the point.  Instinctively, he trusts (and ideally all children trust in their guardians) I will support his ambitions and protect him in his pursuit of them.  Though in these recent weeks I feel intimidated by the possible taking of my son’s life by others armed myopia, faith reminds me that the most selfish thing I can now do is cage my son.  It is important to teach him what Jesse Washington dubs “the Black Code” of conduct (1) when having to deal with law enforcement representatives and in situations that challenge his life, but he was not born or purposed solely to fulfill his or anyone else’s fear.  I would be less than a parent to teach him to cage himself because of the cowardice and inner conflict harbored and festering in others.  He trusts me that while in my arms and upon my shoulders I will bolster his investigations of the world, and support him venturing into it.

The second post I wrote on March 19th is my ideal, my illustration, of how I am trying to raise my son.

After playing on our alphabet playmat, my son in exhaustion drifts to sleep. Resting his head on my thigh, he found his comfortable spot and relaxed. Both of us breathing heavy. Him as he descends into deep sleep. Me as I descend in thinking about Trayvon Martin. 

Will he grow from “native son” to “invisible man” (pun intended on Wright’s and Ellison’s seminal works)? Are sons and statistics interchangeable? Synonymous?

I am thinking on the world in which my son is born into, and what we will need to do to steel, strengthen, prepare and guard him. And also what we will need to instill in his imagination as chords for an (ideally) melodic world he will have to create.

And I wonder what fellow parents raising sons are wondering too . . .


(1) http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5gNZGRWMd7msShtng3-UP3YcivEuw?docId=cf76e46b87df4e90bbf77cbbbabce150

Looking into the Mirror of a Great Divide: How We Define Ourselves at the Expense of Others

In the recent blogpost titled “Black Canadian Like Me,” Alyson Renaldo suggests a contention between kindred of shared borders—Black Canadians and African Americans. She recycles the “Black on Black” crime of people of shared African Diasporic experience disliking and distancing themselves from each other, suggesting that cultural cluelessness, assimilation, and a “lack of reaching back” are the culprits.  Yet in irritating this sore spot, is the author as much its promoter as its clarifier, when suggesting for example that artist Jill Scott’s lyrical references to southern cuisine lacks insight and makes her “clueless” to the cultural experiences of others, and the questions of one Los Angeles bus driver to the author about her diction suggest a universal myopia about African Americans’ understandings of other Black people’s experiences?  The post below explores the dimensions of Alyson’s argument, and the larger dilemma underlying the building and burning of bridges between Diasporic neighbors.

In the blogpost “Black Canadian Like Me” (http://www.theroot.com/views/black-canadian-me), Alyson Renaldo begins her blog sharing reflections on recently attending a Jill Scott concert in Canada with her friends.  She admires Jill’s music, acknowledging it as a portal into an intimate portrait of Jill, a translation of personal experiences churned into lyrical public artifacts.  But it is this very translation that the author criticizes and deems offensive, indicting Jill’s song on a platform larger than her lyrics, holds the song responsible for more than self-expression.  Going wider and deeper than classifying Jill’s performance as creative expression, she critiques both Jill’s song and herself as an artist.  Because Alyson and her friends were unfamiliar with some of the cuisine and cultural references Jill made, the author alludes to Jill’s references to food as intentionally excluding her and her friends from what “should” have been a concert of inclusivity. What follows are some of the comments Alyson and her friends recorded that they made during this collision between concert and culture:

“[Jill’s] just setting up her experience in the song. But, well, not really, because she’s asking us to reminisce with her, which means we’re supposed to know about these strange food combinations, too,” and “I don’t think they know there are others on the planet with them. Maybe she thinks the ‘c’ in ‘Canada’ really stands for ‘Carolinas.’”

Alyson and her friends situate Jill’s center of gravity—how she defines herself—as off-putting, and in the author’s words, “cultural cluelessness.”  She asserts that Jill Scott disappointedly does not take into consideration the experiences of others within her music; talking about certain cuisine indicative of her personal story excludes and alienates others’ stories.

The author seems to be going in the direction of a cultural indictment of a personal cuisine-based affinity upheld by Jill Scott, but is using Jill’s lyrics to lead into a generalized assumption of African Americans’ cultural insularity and exclusivity. She interprets Jill’s culinary affinity as an elitist cultural alienation of them, foregrounding it as an implication of African Americans as a whole as being culturally insular and ignorant.  Using the concert as a case study, the author devotes the rest of the blog to also discussing a premise that African-Americans participate in a self-erasure, with this erasure being a non-affiliation with Diasporic cultural and historical roots, a cultural and ethnic myopia whereby border kindred of African Descent (in this case, Canadians) are disregarded, and an unhealthy assimilation and absorption of Americana.

The blog has me pondering, and probably will continue so long after writing my own response.  Trying best to not write tit for tat, there is something about this supposition of Diasporic and border-based betrayal that does not rest well.  I think the blogpost offers a personal account about how one’s identity is formed and informed by historical and contemporary factors, but makes an over-sweeping judgment to about African Americans as a whole that further contributes fuel to an artificial fight between the survivors of the African Diaspora.

Jill Didn’t Mean No Harm

Alyson frames Jill Scott as “culturally clueless” because of the particular culinary references and cultural connections she made with them.   However, artists work on dual planes—they express a particularized experience, yet do so in forums which universalize its access and foster new possibilities.  This universal access then allows as audience to experience the framing of life as offered by the artist, while also being invited to innovate upon this offering by infusing or revising pieces of ourselves (writing a poem or essay based on a phrase, creating a dance to complement it, reminisce about a time in our lives when we experienced similar, do research, ask questions, etc.).  As another option, we can accept it at face value as just an artist’s interpretation and integrate nothing of ourselves.  To Jill’s defense (and credit), while not everyone grows up on collard greens and candied sweets as particularized by her, there is a universal human experience induced by food and tradition.  As a universal human experience, food and tradition are intertwined, used to commemorate universally human events such as rites of passage, marriage, birth, death, war, victory, etc.

Art is an invitation into a dialogue between artist and audience, a conversation amongst a multiplicity of beings.   I am a fan of Jill Scott in how she mixes a range of emotions, experiences and epiphanies with a range of sounds.  I admire how John Coltrane translates the divine into music.  Composer Clint Mansell generates a soundtrack for the movie “Requiem for a Dream” that gives a sound to addition—razor-backed, uncomfortable, brooding and solemn.  Teena Marie blends guitar and a multi-octave range to make compelling narratives.  Jamiroquai makes the ethereal into the audible.  Astrud Gilberto sings Bossa Nova in a way that is seductive, soothing, and sonorous.  Yo-Yo Ma interprets the history of countries and different music genres, rendering them into melded art.  I may not come from where each of these musicians comes from, nor agree with or enjoy everything each produces.  But, as artists do, by siphoning their specific experience through music, each provides a medium and channel into the human experience.   So to argue as Alyson does that someone’s articulation of his/her experience to be deliberately excluding of others is a huge stretch.  To suggest that an artist’s singular articulation is endemic of a practice of a people is erroneous and unfair condemnation (I’ll return back to this point in the next section).

We have to be careful of criticizing musicians (and perhaps artists in general) as cultural elitists and exclusionists because of references made in a song, and just because some references are unfamiliar or outside the realm of our specific experience.  My husband is a fan of several artists old and new, across a span of artists (from Aretha to Adele, from The Dramatics to The Bee Gees, from David Ruffin to Neil Diamond), eras (60’s, 70’s, 80’s), genres (movie scores to classic soul) and continents (here and abroad).  Several of my nieces love and grew up with Soca and Calypso.  Being around them has made for me a feeling of discomfort because I am unfamiliar with many of the songs and artists they like.  However, it is the intersection of our shared lives as family, amidst this discomfort, that has encouraged me to ask questions and penetrate past a wall of assumed difference, rather than be immobilized by assumption.  Lesson learned  and the take-away. . .while there is variance in our musical tastes, and in the content and cultural referencing of the artists, these things make for more of an opportunity for curiosity than criticism or Diasporic cutterage.


Cultural identity Held Up in the Mirrors of Others’ Eyes

Another argument made in Alyson’s blog is that there people of the Diaspora living in the United States  “process race and community differently than I” (than Canadian-located counterparts), that there was a kind of oppression-and-assimilation orientation that people of color in the United States hold compared to brethren living in Canada.  She recounts her rearing as being entrenched with identifying with the country of family origin, not current location (in this case, Canada where she was born as a citizen).  She makes several statements that that end.  For example, she states, “It was absolutely unheard of for anyone of my ilk to claim Canada,” which “absolutely everything, from your table etiquette to your family pride — was figuratively imported,” and “my generation’s parents knew what they were doing when they insisted on raising us as West Indians first, rather than Canadian.”

There are two implications here.  One is that only Alyson has been reared this way, suggesting that no other immigrant groups, whether voluntary or involuntary, practice the preservation and continuation of old traditions in new lands and inculcate their young to do the same.  Second, the author implies that if someone was not raised this same isolationistic way, that she or he is deprived and “less than.”  The author’s mentioning of how she “processes race and community” seems more as to bring separative distinction and deliberate distancing to the forefront.  Isn’t this the very same elitism she accuses Jill Scott of doing during the concert?  Jill is accused of cultural elitism because of references made in a song and “promoted” during a concert, yet the same indictment could be imposed here for the author’s elevation of how she was raised to the assumed absence of how others are not.

The author also makes an interesting statement about her rearing and interracial interactions between white Canadians and people of the African Diaspora living in Canada.  She asserts that in Canada there is a deliberate distancing between those of West Indian descent and the white majority:

“. . . when it comes to my sense of self, I am Caribbean, first and foremost.

As a child of West Indian immigrants, I clearly remember my dual development: When I stepped outside, my whole world was white, with a smattering of minorities, but when I returned home, the inverse was true. My entire socialization mirrored black and West Indian sensibilities, training that took place exclusively at home. All standards of progress were set by West Indian ideals. None of this was explicitly articulated so much as explicitly modeled.

It could be reasonably surmised that, as a community, we were invested in privacy and distance from the majority. Our parents interacted with the country’s white majority as one would a friendly co-worker. Caucasians were not our parents’ superiors — nor were they subordinate. They were just people with whom our parents were expected to spend significant amounts of time. Granted, if, while using this model, they forged friendships, that was cool, but it wasn’t even remotely necessary or solicited. Also, it goes without saying that it was not considered wise to bring one’s ‘work’ home . . .

Perhaps my generation’s parents knew what they were doing when they insisted on raising us as West Indians first, rather than Canadian. It meant that we could live within a white majority but not be defined by that majority. This is how our parents ensured our solid foundation, which was and remains an immeasurable gift.”

The author states that confining interactions with “the majority” to just work is optimal to preserving one’s own identity.  To contrast, it is the lack of preserving this distance, and the adoption of “the American dream” has led to the “downfall” of African Americans. Based on a brief stint of living and going to school in Los Angeles, talking with a bus driver, and attending a party with white Americans, Alyson contends her understandings about African Americans grew.  Yet the author condescending argument has holes as well, as evinced by judgmental comments about African Americans such as, “[there is the] American cultural norm of self-absorption, a trait to which black Americans are not immune,” “I had completely forgotten is that black Americans are still Americans, a nation firm in its resolve that no person or thing on this planet — or in the heavens — matters as much as they do.”

Alyson doesn’t specifically state what she believes as the way African American process race and community, and its differences to her own.  By implication, it seems from the blogpost she is suggesting “differently” that being born as an African American means to be devoid of rearing that infuses one’s growing up with being brought up with history, knowledge and traditions of Diasporic ancestry.   It also implies an over-willingness to accept, acculturate and assimilate the beliefs and practices of the dominant culture—to the consequential cheapening of one’s self.   Her premise also implies that to assimilate some beliefs, to participate in some of the traditions of one’s current country of citizenship, is a cheapening of oneself.  Suggesting that there was not enough “resistance” placed against integration and “hence the consequence” of marginalization.  As if to suggest living a daily strategic negotiation on multiple fronts of culture, employment, and identity are demeaning work.

However, growing up through multiplicity does not lead to mediocrity or “selling out.”  As a woman of color born and living in the United States, I am the culmination of various experiences.  Some directly rooted in my ancestry and ancestral history, others based on living within a multi-ethnic nation.  Some experiences I have had through growing up in a major urban city, others from visiting family in rural settings.  Some experiences are inherited from family traditions, others from sharing in the family experiences of others.  Some experiences as a woman of color have helped me ascend, other have been afflictions because of people’s assumptions based on my gender and ethnicity.  Who we come to be is more mosaic than singular.

I was not sure of the connections the author makes between Jill Scott’s music, her cultural upbringing, and suppositions about the African American experience.  What I did read and note was the tracing of experiences distancing, in both the author’s accounts and also in my experience as the audience.  A conventional conclusion that summarizes talking points wouldn’t do justice here, because what Alyson’s blogpost brings up is the need for more dialogue and conversation across borders of land and heart.

For now, for us all I offer one suggestion.  Stop placing so much responsibility on a song, and so little on introspection.