Changing Policy, Changing Lives: Angela Roman’s Fight for Underserved Young People

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Angela Nikki Romans works relentlessly in actualizing the promise and possibilities of historically underserved young people. She invests in proliferating pathways of success traveling from cradle to classroom to college. Dismantling policies and disrupting practices that inhibit access, opportunity and resources, she is a catalyst for change on multiple fronts, spanning classrooms, school districts, municipal agencies and non-profit organizations.

 

Change as Groundswell

 

Angela’s commitment to educational reform evolved from over two decades working in myriad educational and political settings, first as a high school math and science teacher, then university admissions officer, school network manager, senior education advisor for the mayor’s office in Providence, Rhode Island, and her current position as principal associate. Each experience has made her ask of herself progressively tougher questions about her advocacy work. “Where do you start at the individual teacher level, the structural and policy level, to make sure that kids have the right opportunities to be able to succeed, and with the right support to be able to succeed?”

As a principal associate at The Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, Angela’s work centers on national policy research and reform initiatives to improve public education. Under the umbrella of school district redesign and leadership, Angela’s energies centralize around understanding “How districts shape themselves,” then involving diverse stakeholders willing to collaborate in creating “the right policies, supports and structures for students to have equitable opportunities and equitable outcomes.” To Angela, partnerships provide “the strongest and most sustainable way to support school districts” because “school districts can’t do it alone.” They need a web of “community-based organizations, higher education institutions, public agencies, all [working] together to support student outcomes of success.”

Angela’s current projects are a nationwide study of college readiness involving several urban school districts, improving disciplinary practices within and across schools, and increasing the number of college graduates. She is the Annenberg Institute lead on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s College Readiness Indicators Systems (CRIS) Project, a multi-year collaborative project with four major urban school districts and an educational management organization aimed to generate and systematize indicators of college readiness. Its goal is to identify indicators of and replicate effective practices and policies in measuring college readiness at the student, school, and system levels, culminating in “the right policies and practices and support for individual students.” Another national project is building learning networks between school districts and CBOs (community based organizations) “to look at school district disparities constructively and look at alternatives to harmful school discipline practices.” In partnership with the Providence Children and Youth Cabinet (CYC), Angela is working to increase the number of local college graduates. Recently the CYC obtained a significant grant from Lumina Foundation (under the auspice of the Community Partnership for Attainment) to assist efforts in helping adults achieve high-quality post-secondary degrees.

Prior to her position as principal associate, Angela was the senior education advisor for the Mayor of Providence, RI, Angel Taveras. Working as a cabinet member of the mayor’s office afforded Angela an advantageous position to cultivate systemic change. “I took the job because with a mayor who has that type of governmental influence over schools [the mayor’s office appoints the school board and hires the school superintendent with approval from city council], there is a real opportunity for change-making…opportunities that are under-utilized and under-tapped.” As senior education advisor, Angela’s work gravitated around “being involved in and shaping a larger citywide conversation and notion of community accountability around education.” Her primary focus was on creating sustainable support systems for young people, doing so through assembling and aligning willing partners.

To initiate this change, Angela implemented a collective impact model (CMI), “a social change movement that is focused on community-wide, cross-sector engagement,” to generate “collective common goals that everyone agrees on, common metrics, and the notion of shared accountability.” Under Angela’s leadership, the existing Children’s and Youth Cabinet (CYC) was restructured, populating it with stakeholders representing diverse perspectives and resources. With over 120 individuals and 70 organizations brought together, she convened parents, residents, businesses, non-profit organizations, municipal and state agencies to champion their local schools. Angela deems CMI as an effective framework because it moves us “away from the notion that just the superintendent is accountable, or just the schools are accountable, or just the mayor is accountable. It is collective accountability across all the different stakeholders.”

During her first summer of employment in the mayor’s office, Angela convened a small workgroup from the CYC charged with collecting and examining previous reports and data, generating a set of citywide goals to move forward. For Angela, this collaborative approach to effecting change is “great work because it is changing the way we think about whose responsibility it is to improve outcomes for children and youth, helping organizations and institutions move away from a ‘siloed’ way of thinking to a collaborative way of thinking that is really trying to align our resources in ways that haven’t been done before.” This concerted approach to change “is an intentional and difficult shift, but one I believe we have to fundamentally make to move the needle considering we are failing thousands, millions of young people every year.” Further restructuring included creating small workgroups, an executive committee, and hiring a director.

 

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Changing Possibilities through Changing Paradigms

 

Angela’s work to reform how historically underserved youth are serviced and supported is shared by her work in redefining them. To Angela, defining young people as “at risk” emphasizes the notion of problems prevailing over their potential, harbors negative social implications, and perpetuates detrimental political repercussions. For Angela, “It’s about what is at the forefront of your mind,” whether “you focus on the challenges young people face, or the assets that young people and communities have and how you build on those assets to make sure that young people reach their promise.” She contends that “What people tend to do when defining ‘at risk’ is to think about what are the factors that make students most likely to fail. To fail in their educational pursuits in being productive members of society in terms of economic outcomes, social outcomes, indicators around marriage and stability…And those are [typically attributed to] race, class, gender, parents’ educational background, contact with the justice system, use of drugs and alcohol…and tons of social behaviors…statistics correlated with students not doing well. If students have these factors, [the argument is] that these students are at risk to fail.”

In place of labeling students “at risk,” Angela articulates “a more proactive approach in saying that all students are ‘at promise.’” If “we really think about the notion of equity and the fact that we want strong opportunities and strong outcomes for all young people, then some young people need more support to get there. Because they have had fewer opportunities or different personalities or are in different environments, that just shows that they need more support to reach their promise. That’s the way I approach my work as an educator. In speaking about research and policy and working with school districts, and working with institutions, as well as individual young people, it’s how I define the dichotomy between ‘at risk’ and ‘at promise.’”

 

When the Personal Becomes Professional: Subjective Experience as Impetus for Social Change

 

Angela’s own academic experiences sensitized her to the challenges students “at promise” face, and the transformative difference that can be realized with help from committed stakeholders. Growing up in a single parent household, she credits good math and science teachers, some who were “particularly thoughtful women of color” for recognizing her interests and acuity, inspiring her and pushing her toward excellence. By attending a magnet high school specializing in math and science (in Atlanta, Ga) her senior year, she became a member of a thriving community of scholars of color, studying under “teachers who were pushing kids to do amazing research” in local universities. Angela regards this educational opportunity and setting as impactful. “My classmates were such an inspiration to me because, oh, you’re supposed to be this way. You’re supposed to be smart, accomplished, and competitive in a generative way.”

From an early age, Angela wanted to be an educator. An avid reader and enthusiastic student who was involved in engineering, science and math camps most summers, Angela was excited about learning new things, and the prospects of igniting students’ learning too. However, given the lackluster reception of the idea from her family, she felt the best decision was to channel her alacrity in math and science in pursuit of an engineering degree. “There were not that many engineers of color in the profession and that there were not a lot of women of color.” So “Being a woman of color going into engineering would be something that was a challenge, but also something that would be sought after…[I was told] you should be an engineer.” It was the career path advocated by her family. Fascinated by nature, biology, and physiology, she sought a way to merge these two interests, and decided to pursue a career in biomedical engineering. After talking with a student of color attending Harvard University, she applied and enrolled.

Attending Harvard University proved informative, both as a place to be tooled with means for professional success, and a place where she began her political and social awakening. Being in a competitive engineering program with fewer than thirty students, one of the few women and women of color in particular, and at times having professors of patriarchal orientation, made for a confluence of variables that at times made the pursuit of personal and professional success difficult and challenging.

Yet her experiences at Harvard yielded valuable lessons about paving, preparing and participating within a supportive village. Paying it forward, she worked in the admissions office as a way to continue increasing the number of students of color attending the university. “It’s important to be available to the young folks who are the first, or one of the first of their family, to aspire to a strong education, and get there, and how to get there.” She also learned the value and impact of supporting one another. Facing a dilemma of completing difficult cumulative projects to obtain the professionally advantageous BSc degree, or take an “easier” route and graduate with a BA, Angela had a hard decision to make. Then a classmate, a fellow senior and woman of color, implored her to choose the former when saying, “Angela, don’t leave me.” Her peer’s beseeching did more than influence her to complete the more challenging degree. Angela has been since impacted to invest in supporting students facing challenging intersections, especially those with few resources.

After obtaining a BS in biomedical engineering from Harvard University, the calling to teach resurrected with a strengthened volume, compelling Angela to return to Harvard and now obtain a Masters of Education. There she learned of education as a means to empower both individuals and communities, learning about educator Ted Sizer, the Coalition of Essential Schools, and the constructivist approach to learning and education. The program advocated and promoted a “real inquiry based education for young people, that empower[s] young people, [one] that is relevant and creative, and generative, and really empower[s] teachers and educators to design schools in ways that are best for the community.” This epiphany fueled both her want to empower others and to be empowered as a teacher. Participating in such an educational program “started me thinking about what I really wanted to do and what really meant a lot to me.” It “really pushed me to think about [how to make to] a choice with my feet.”
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Making a Difference in Urban Classrooms

 

Immediately after graduation, Angela sought opportunities to teach in urban high school settings. “I really wanted to teach Black kids. That was something that, graduating from a high school that was all Black, having lots of Black role models and mentors, it was really important to me to become a mentor and role model for Black kids. And to be a mentor and role model to kids who did not have a mentor or role model. That was critical for me.” She sought employment in schools that “availed teachers the power to create curriculum, and create school culture, and strong cultures of inquiry-based teaching.” One such school was Urban Academy in NYC, which she describes as “just an amazing place.” “Everything there was about students discovering their own knowledge and learning, shaped in a very strong Socratic way.” Her instructional facilitation supported students finding trends and patterns within the process of problem solving, such that “Once you see patterns, we can then create our own rules, or we can articulate what the rules are.” She did this in lieu of conventional direct transmission where a teacher may relay “this is how I solved the problem, now you solve fifteen more like it.” Consequently, “students understood a lot more math.” Science classes were thematic. Compared to just covering a textbook from cover to cover, Angela and colleagues taught courses in animal behavior, research methods, and the science of food, involving students in actual research. “I never gave a lecture.” After a year she returned to Boston and taught at Fenway High School, another small high school. Angela “focused on teachers and teacher-driven curriculum, culture, and more project-based learning, more than the traditional high school.” She situated teaching within a workshop model, and began a new venture in advising and mentoring students.

But after three years of teaching Angela felt incomplete because her support of students was primarily confined to classrooms. “I love being an educator and working with young people, but wasn’t sure the best way for me to do that was through running a classroom.” She explored harnessing her support on larger scales. Brown University afforded her a platform to do professional outreach and support of “at promise” students within post-secondary institutions.

 

Building Post-Secondary Bridges

 

For eleven years Angela worked as Associate Director of Admissions and Director of Minority Recruitment within the Office of Admissions at Brown University. Working in this office particularly allowed her to serve students “standing in the intersection between high school and college,” helping them navigate that transition, especially “for those who don’t have in their friends, families, and communities, a lot of people that have [previously] navigated that transition successfully.” Within her numerous positions, she targeted her work around recruitment and retention of underserved young people. Young people “who could, and should be succeeding in places like Brown, that would never have found them, if not for that person who either came to their high school, or emailed them, or encouraged their counselor to recommend people like them, or all those serendipitous things.” Angela forged “a culture in the admissions office of trying to look beyond some of the traditional markers for underrepresented students, looking to how we could really capture extraordinary potential, in ways that are measured beyond just test scores. Students who have been extraordinary leaders, students who have gone above and beyond their school community such as seeking out summer programs.” She helped to shift orientations toward assessing the potential success of underrepresented students. What resulted was an increased enrollment of students of color, particularly first-generation students.

Angela began to miss working within urban schools, and left Brown University to return working in them, this time as Network Manager for Diploma Plus. Diploma Plus is a non-profit organization which provides a competency-based education model focused on college and career readiness, targeting high school populations of predominantly over-aged and under-credited students. As Network Manager of schools in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, Angela’s work on the frontline spanned (1) providing professional development to principals, teachers and staff, (2) forging and sustaining collaborations between schools and community based organizations and higher education institutions, (3) mentoring students directly, (4) advocating for policy reform and educational initiatives in support of these schools both at municipal and national levels, as well as (5) supporting the national organization on myriad educational and political fronts. “It really gave me an opportunity to return back to the small schools where I got my start as an educator, really thinking about creating small schools that were supportive of students, with a culture where teachers had an opportunity to shape the instruction and the design of the school, AND working with students who were the opposite in terms of the academic achievement spectrum to those I worked with at Brown, for whom school had not been a good experience and had not been successful, but were still seeking it out, sticking it out even though school had not served them well for many years.” Angela’s work also culminated in the opening of a new and successful DP high school in Boston.

 

Advocacy Beyond Office Hours

 

Angela’s work to make a difference extends beyond the office or work hours. “So much of the personal is professional for me.” She is involved and invested in several volunteer initiatives. For the past four years, Angela has chaired the board of a local non-profit organization, College Visions, which mentors and supports first generation high school students in their post-secondary pursuits. Its mission is “providing individualized support so students get into and through college.” In addition, Angela serves on the board of the Harvard Alumni Association, through which she interviews perspective students, and is a past board member of the Women’s Fund of Rhode Island. She does volunteer work for the Rhode Island Black Storytellers. She is also called to speak at many functions and for numerous organizations. Angela has also received awards of recognition. The YWCA recognized her in 2013 as a Woman of Achievement. She also an Annie E. Casey Foundation Children and Family Fellow. Angela continues to contribute to the educational field by writing articles. Recent articles include one she co-authored for The New Educator titled, “Engaging City Hall: Children as Citizens,” and the Atlantic’s Quartz online publication titled “Americans Who Say ‘College isn’t for Everyone’ Never Mean Their Own Kids.”

Looking back on her career, Angela shares the following reflection. “I continue to be both exhausted and inspired by the work that I do to try as much as I can to improve the lives of young people in this society because so much of what we are doing is not working…and have been really focused on the systems, the ‘unsexy thing’ that we have to think about in making sure that there are big sweeping institutional changes because there are many things moving in directions that are not good for young people.”

Angela Nikki Romans is on a mission. It extends before attaining elaborate trappings or award-garnering recognition under bright stage lights. Where Angela lends her talents is in the junctions of neighborhoods and crevices of school systems where ostracized and high needs students are falling between the cracks, fading to black. It is within these obscure and unpopular yet over-populated spaces you will find Angela digging to make a difference. With her soul’s sleeves rolled up, Angela thatches hope, aerates opportunities, stakes possibilities, prunes budding talent. In all, she is working to harvest underserved young people’s academic, economic, and personal success.

 

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(This article is also in digital and print format at http://www.magzter.com/US/Bronze-Magazine/Bronze-Magazine/Women’s-Interest/)

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A Place to Belong: A Place to Become (Movie Review)

Montclair YWCA

I remember the lessons learned as both member and president of the local youth chapter of the National Council of Negro Women where I grew up. The strengthening of sisterhood through bringing divergent points of view into focus on a common goal. Learning the importance of outreach, of volunteering, to make a difference in the lives of others. Attending meetings that bridged the emerging ambition of young folk with the tempered sagacity of elders.  It was an organization where the variance in our hues and hair was neither asset nor liability. We were sisters.  It was an opportunity where our capacity and consciousness could grow and be harvested, not pitted in covetousness or competition. It was the space where we spread our wings, tested our steps, and built our dreams into edifices for future generations.

Meeting in that small community center room, it was a place for each of us to become.

In the documentary “A Place to Belong,” oral historian and filmmaker Allison Bonner Shillingford chronicles the lives of eight women members of the Montclair YWCA for African American women and girls from 1920-1965. Weaving them together, they become for the audience an historical, social and cultural tapestry.  What unfolds is a beauteous but hard-stitched textile.  Juxtaposed against the realities of racism via redlining, blockbusting and de facto segregation, we learn the many dreams of these members of the Great Migration, and what they and their families hoped to mine and actualize from moving to Montclair.  It is the textile through which we learn how involvement in numerous clubs, community events and summer camps claimed their hearts, cultivating sisterhood between them.  It is the textile through which we learn how gaining and applying leadership and collaboration skills becomes fodder and tools for later practice in these women’s’ personal and professional lives.  It is the textile through which we learn how women of color across decades, including multiple generations within the same families, deliberately came to the YWCA to garner and harness a sense of self- ownership, affirmation, empowerment and pride in themselves and one another.  In defiance of the enforced separation or hidden prejudice harbored within some of the people of the landscape, the landscape for them became promising and replete with possibility. The Montclair YWCA became their beacon, a blessing, the bonfire of sisterhood around which they assembled and grew together.  Because of their individual and collective experiences at the YWCA, they learned how to live their lives as counter-narratives to gender, racial and economic inequities.

Through hard-told truths, wit, fond recollections and even giggles, these women pioneers—Norma Jean Darden, Daisy Booker Douglas, Lauretta Brandice Freeman, Rosemary Allen Jones, Sandra Lang, Dorothy Hatchett Morton, Elberta Hayes Stones, and Lucie Coleman Walton—make us privy to private experiences, rendering them as public texts.  In so doing, we learn lessons of the resilience that harbors deep in heart and soul.

In attendance during the Q & A session were Allison Bonner Shillingford, executive producer and Director of the Montclair Historical Society Jane Mitchell Eliasof, and President of the Montclair Historical Society and project director Claudia Ocello.  Also in attendance were several relatives of the women from the movie, spanning several generations. The session began with one audience member inquiring about the genesis of the film. Jane commented that “there is a huge story that is not being told,” and thought it important that the story of the YWCA be captured, particularly since the renovation of the building where the YWCA was housed has little represented within it of this important history. Allison elaborated that finding former YWCA members was a challenge, but was finally successful, including the fortune of finding one member who was 100 years old at the time of her first interview. Then, several family members intimated their thankfulness for the film being created. Next, an audience member asked about the film’s availability, which Jane shared is for sale at the Montclair Historical Society.  Jane also shared that there were be several more group showings of the film throughout the year.  An audience member then asked how long did it take to make the film, in which Allison shared that it took 2 ½ years, initiated by Claudia contacting Columbia University to find someone who was an oral historian who would be interested in this project. Allison answered the higher calling.

(This movie review is also posted at the Montclair Film Festival Website, http://montclairfilmfest.org/2014/05/a-place-to-belong-finding-a-place-to-become/)

Of Hair and Origin

In this guest blogpost, Tricia Amiel, a mother, writer, adjunct instructor and former teacher, takes an introspective and candid look into the intersection of race, identity and self-perception.  She divulges some hard truths and hurts that emanate from others asking her questions about her roots.  Then, in turning affliction into learning opportunity, she discusses how she had students turn questions about origin and identity back on themselves, and what both she and her students learned about the power that emanates from knowledge of self. 

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When I tell some people that I am Jamaican, the first thing they want to know about is my hair.  My hair is long, very dark and “smooth.”  It is naturally very wavy, but is easily made straight.  As a little girl in elementary school, I was either a fascination or the object of disdain; they said I was conceited, that I thought myself to be better than other girls because my hair was so different from theirs.  It was “good hair,” of a quality that at the time I didn’t understand was supposed to be better, more beautiful than theirs.  It didn’t help that I was smart and my teachers favored me, but my hair was the sorest point of contention with the other girls in the schoolyard.

It used to annoy me, that request to know about my hair, the misguided guesses about my origins—I was thought at various times to be Cuban, Dominican, “mixed” with Native American, anything but what I am—and my annoyance led me to reply in a sometimes vague, often sarcastic way.  I’m human, I would say, or, my hair came from my head.  Now, a student of Multicultural Literatures, African American and Caribbean philosophy, I understand that there is a lot that people don’t know about the Caribbean.  It seemed to me that many people were purposefully ignorant, that they went out of their way to NOT know, but now I think so much is hidden from us, and that as human beings in a world divided along lines of color, belief, and politics to name a few, we seek to categorize people, place them in spaces that we understand and control rather than assume that there are things we don’t know.

Until recently, I was a ninth grade English and Drama teacher at a South Florida high school in the “green zone,” one of those areas in which teachers were paid a slightly greater salary for their bravery.  It is a low-performing, mostly black, Hispanic, and immigrant school with few resources, set far away from other, newer, “better” schools.  There too, my hair was a fascination, a curiosity, to students and staff alike.  It was the genuine curiosity and lack of knowledge in my students that changed my sarcastic tone to a didactic one; I saw that they wanted to know.  I assigned a project to my English classes, called  “Where I’m From.”  Students were to seek out ancestors–parents, grandparents, any elder family member at all–and interview them about their family’s origins.  They were encouraged to write essays, create posters of family photos of each generation they could, pictures or drawings of flags, national colors, foods, and historical information.

One student presented a recording of his Cuban great-grandmother’s voice telling the story of her emigration to the United States, hidden on a cargo boat, nearly dying of starvation. Another had a very old family album, full of bIack and white photos of great and great-great family members, labeled with names and dates as far back as the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.  Still, I heard things that saddened me deeply, especially from my minority students; for example, a Haitian student wrote that black people had come to Haiti from France, denying vehemently her African origins and history of slavery and the successful revolution carried out by slaves.  Some Hispanic students did not understand that Spanish was not just the name of the language they spoke, but also the adjective describing people from Spain—not Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, or Mexico—that they spoke Spanish because Spain had colonized those places, and that some of their ancestors were native Indians.  Many African American students were unable to see beyond the neighborhood they lived in, posting things like the area code and gang colors on their poster boards.  They took pride in what they did know, but did not know as much as they should in a time when history’s pages are more open and questioning of tradition than ever before.

I did the project along with them, using the colors of the Jamaican flag for my poster, included pictures of my family that were taken at my grandmother’s ninetieth birthday party, pictures of Arawak Indians, stories about the Maroons, the arrival of the Chinese and East Indians in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, and Rastafarian religious practices, a group for whom the “dread” style of hair that so many of them had adopted had significant meaning.  I also included pictures of my high school in the Bronx, where my maternal grandmother, whose own half-Chinese countenance fascinated my students, had emigrated to from Jamaica after living for many years in England.  I told them my paternal grandmother was East Indian, that she had black hair that fell to her waist, and that I’d been told  my coloring and bone structure were like hers; I knew little else.

In those facts, my students finally understood the story of my hair and the truth, as best I could tell it, of my origins.  The thing that had so annoyed me became the medium through which I was able to teach the value of knowing where you’re from, understanding your own personal history within the larger frame of historical knowledge.  Look in the mirror, I told them; see yourself.  In the mirror lies the beginning of your story.  A story that includes the people, the ancestors of your past, and the history of how you came to be.  Look for answers, I told them.  Try to find some truth; try to find out who you were, so that you can know who you are.

Tricia Amiel

The Brilliance and Banality of Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild. Movie Poster

 

Beasts of the Southern Wild catechistically instigates us to contemplate the origin of our existence.  Is life an evolving conversation between past action and future possibility?  Is one’s survival best informed by obedience to a natural order, or adaptability?  Is modernity a gift or a curse?  Beasts also wants us to examine what responsibilities we hold for self and others, and at what costs.  What tutelage best prepares a child for impendent life after parents passing?  What is one’s obligation to self and community? The film’s success lays in positing such weighty and philosophical questions, situating the audience as contemplative explorers in search of answers instead of passive observers.  However, the way the movie itself unfolds and investigates these questions becomes its own Achilles’ heel; its exploration and exposition of them becomes duplicitous.  The exploration and exposition are mired by unexamined stereotypes, entangled within meandering abstractions, and obscured by mishandled juxtapositions of past and present.

 

African American Maleness as Caricature and Courageous

The film’s presentation of masculinity and fatherhood is wrought with typecasting.  Resuscitated is the portrayal of an African American man as inept, damaged and uncivilized.  He is deemed ill-equipped to take care of his own life and the lives of those for whom he is responsible.  The character Wink “actualizes” these suppositions as he holds no steady job and does not draw in sufficient income to sustain his family’s current living or future prospects.  The housing he provides himself and his daughter Hushpuppy is makeshift and dilapidated, comprised of discarded trailers that harbor few resources or necessities, brimming with debris. Hushpuppy’s food is a putrid mixture of gravy and cat food which she has to mix together herself, and roast chicken supposedly kept “sterile” in a dirty cooler.   Wink is not depicted as a provider; he is reduced to a scavenger of the land. Their transportation is a truck bed made afloat by plastic drums.  Livestock and wild animals run rampant, uninstructed by fences, inappropriately comingling while also left to fend for their survival, garnering what little food he tosses to them.  Dismally, Wink is presented as inadequate in providing for self, daughter, and animals in his charge.

 

home squalor

 

Beasts also portrays Wink as enfeebled by responsibility, falling short in several physical and educative duties a parent is expected to fulfill.  He comes across as incompetent.  Although he “teaches” his daughter independence by having her live in a separate shack, a dress rehearsal for life after he dies, his instruction-for-survival is left to her inference.  Other than when Wink actually demonstrates for Hushpuppy how to fish by snatching a catfish from the water with bare hands and in his words “whacking it in the head,” Wink is rarely shown teaching her specific roles, responsibilities, or rituals that will help her survive in life.  “Feed up time” is an insufficient summoning of Hushpuppy to come over to his quarters and eat as a family, although they are never shown breaking bread together.  Instead, she squats on the rubble underneath his living quarters in a crude coup where she scarfs a chicken carcass in solitary.  During a community meal, when a friend of a family begins teaching Hushpuppy how to open a crab with a tool, her father brutishly interrupts, instructing her to “beast it” by cracking it open with her bare hands. The film attempts to convey Wink as a dutiful father struggling to make ends meet and make the frayed parts of life hold together.  But instead, Wink comes across as unprepared, unskilled, and drunken.  He is a vivified aberration and mockery of the Biblical endowment of humans having dominion over the earth.

 Hushpuppy and Wink Eating

 

The lacking of material and emotional provisions is “supposed” to result in Hushpuppy becoming self-sufficient and better able to deal with strife and struggle.  Sadly, the dearth that prevails perpetuates a hackneyed representation of Wink as an incompetent man and father. This portrayal diminishes an otherwise potentially powerful message of fathers facilitating their offspring in garnering grit and resilience.  Perversely, Wink’s paternalism is portrayed as a cloaked form of “tough love.” But, it is unclear in the movie exactly what kind of life this father is preparing his child to live. To the film’s credit, adverse to the commonplace assumptions and depictions of African American men abandoning their families, it magnifies Wink’s resolve to remain in Hushpuppy’s life and raise her after her mother’s departure.

 

Wink

 

Beasts gains redemption for portraying Wink as a man and father that does not allow the absence of Hushpuppy’s mother to speak greater than his presence.  As single parent, he remains and assumes paternal and shepherding responsibilities. Although shabby provisions, he provides food and shelter. He protects his daughter when the major storm hits.  He spends time with her.  He gives her advice. He embraces her when she is scared.

However, this same character is perforated by a harmful representation, embracing formulaic imaginings constantly associated with an African American man as inhuman, savage and reckless.  Unable to deal with life’s trials, Wink lashes outward and inward.  When he becomes enraged, things get hurled. When stressed, he indulgently and excessively gulps down bottles of liquid sedation. When around fellow community members he is loud and brash.  When rescued, he becomes ireful, grunting and shoving away rescue workers who are trying to save his and his daughter’s lives.  This is not to suggest that there is a best, absolute, or singular way to portray “real life” people through characters on film. However, the opportunity to render an informed and multifaceted African American male character is left untilled and unsown.

 

Wink at party

 

But to the film’s credit, Wink is a plausible character.  Dwight Henry renders a compelling embodiment of a flailing protagonist in a world where scarcity abounds.  It must have been toilsome vexatious work for Henry as an African American man to embody one epitomizing so many repressive stereotypes and potentially no redeeming qualities. Yet Henry does, and in spite of the typecast, imbues Wink with humanity and genuineness.  Because of Henry’s skillfulness to empathize, he renders Wink as more than his physical, economic, cultural and social ineptitudes. Despite the clichéd scripting of Wink as broken, Henry infuses Wink’s character as one of deep convictions with an undeniable resilience to uphold them.  Consequently, Wink comes across as a man fervently and justifiably adhering to living out his beliefs no matter what. Because of Henry, there is no doubt that Wink loves Hushpuppy with ferocity and devotion, a love supreme.  Amidst the pyre of stereotypes, Henry’s rendering of Wink makes him exhibit the qualities of a phoenix. Wink is ever-rising from the ashes of deteriorating health and an economic scrapheap to prevail for his daughter.  Despite the preponderance of one-dimensional writing of Wink as hapless and helpless, Henry’s industrious portrayal of Wink redeems his storying as a devoted African American man and father.   Henry’s portrayal of Wink transforms Wink so that he emanates not with debilitation but with determination.

father and daughter

 

African American Femaleness as Object and Archetype

Portrayals of the African American woman do not fare better in Beasts.  The gamut of the expression of her womanhood is limited in scope, shrunken to magnify shortcomings and body parts.  The audience’s closest understanding of Hushpuppy’s mother, a woman pivotal to Wink’s and Hushpuppy’s reality, comes only through these two characters’ sparse memories.  We are not made privy to her heart, soul, and thinking.  We are intentionally left in the dark about the chronology of her interactions with the main characters, and her  involvement with them both as individuals and as a family.  Life lessons, familial impartations and spiritual teachings are veiled, thinly suggested, or just plain absent. Yet, her “presence” is seemingly so central to whom they have become and their current predicaments.  Her absenteeism is an unraveled bow that, paradoxically, binds them together.  For Hushpuppy, “mother” is only a voice that softly lulls and talks back from a tattered jersey strewn over a worn dining room chair.  For Wink, her disappearance is fondly distilled into a sexually charged flirtation.  For both, she is disintegrated, fragmented, enshrouded within a characterization of absence, allure, and arousal.

 

Mother Jersey

 

The film entertains an extended but dichotomous metaphor of an African American woman’s sexuality as sensual and manipulative, seismic and predatory.   The “mother” has raptorial eyes that invite, penetrate, and capture.  Flames instantly alight under pots as her hips sway pass; water yields to boil.  Frost from the fridge exhales and surrenders white emissions when she bends down and opens it.  In one particularly perverse flashback, while outside lounging with Wink, she spots an approaching alligator, draws a riffle, and blasts it.  Then, in intentional slow motion, the film slows down so she is shown strutting, assumes a model stance, and spreads gleaming legs apart (rifle propped beside her). Turned frontward, she reveals animal blood splattered and soiling bright white briefs.  This imagery is problematic, seemingly exaggerating the mother’s sexuality for titillation, proliferating sex over substance in character. In this scene, Beasts perpetrates and perpetuates a ridiculous and irrelevant melding of gender, sex and violence, eroticizing menstruation and associating slaughter with foreplay.  Consequently, the film’s treatment of the Black woman and her body becomes exploitative, reviving the Hottentot Venus.

 

the mother

 

The film’s singular and myopic focus on a woman through her sexuality is revisited when it hyperbolizes prostitutes as maternal surrogates.  After returning from the rescue center to The Bathtub, Hushpuppy and her entourage endeavor an emancipatory swim. They happen upon the Elysian Fields, a brothel barge.  After boarding, the innocents survey the unfamiliar setting. Sensing their wonder, the prostitutes then congregate around them, affectionately welcoming and marveling over them. Several take it upon themselves to embrace and cuddle each girl in a scene resonating with imagery of mothers reuniting with and reclaiming their missing daughters.   Hushpuppy happens upon a young cook strongly resembling her mother.  The cook is immediately endearing. She takes it upon herself to fry alligator to feed her (perhaps harkening back to the erotic rifle episode), administers advice, holds her, slow dances with her and then in tears departs, leaving Hushpuppy alone.   Providing a jarring collection of images and associations, Beasts is unclear in relaying why maternal acclimation and affirmation would be readily available in a place where conventionally no one would want to purchase them.

To its credit, the film does promotes the idea that the provision of love is not limited or exclusive to biological progenitors.  Acceptance and nurturing can be found anywhere and given freely from anyone.   To this point, in a muddled melding of motherliness and “love for sale,” prostitutes are therefore elevated to the status of parental replacements.  However, a contradiction then surfaces.  Selecting female prostitutes as its exemplars, the film’s supposition endorses a sex-based stereotype that there is a maternal instinct infused within the genetic coding of all females, transcending station in life, whether or not one has given birth.  When called upon by the universe or happenstance, that genetic calling will activate action, and any female courier in the vicinity will instantly comply to deliver love.  It is an overreaching generalization and presumptuous assertion to make.

 

Meeting with Momma

Maternal surrogate

 

Yet amidst equivocal typecasts and askew representations, Beasts does provide positive portrayals of women and girls.   In spiritual and natural form, and across age ranges, there are several occurrences in the movie where the notion of female is attributed to guidance, information, and assistance.  Hushpuppy’s “mother,” teacher and surrogate incarnate are there for her in critical moments and turning points.  While cooking, Hushpuppy takes down her mother’s basketball jersey from its shrine and drapes it over a dining chair, perhaps as a ritual.  They begin conversing, with the mother-in-voice “checking in” and affirming her daughter.  This suggests that, no matter what, a mother’s love is always within reach.  On the barge, the cook, which the film alludes to being Hushpuppy’s real mother, admonishes her on how to handle the bitter and the sweet in life. She advises Hushpuppy as if knowing her immediate circumstances, and maternally, forecasting what she will later experience:

 

“When you a child, people gonna tell you life is all happy and honky dory. I’m here to tell you that it’s not, so get that out your head right now . . . One day everything on your plate gonna fall on the floor. Nobody gonna be there to pick it up for you.  It’s gonna be all on you.  You understand what I’m saying?  So smile girl, cause nobody like a pity-party-having-ass woman.”

 

Hushpuppy’s teacher personifies a strong, resolute, steadfast woman.  At the beginning of the film, she puts forth a crude lesson about the survival of the fittest; she admonishes her young students to prepare for an eminent storm, and allegorically, teaches that hardship is a cyclical yet essential part of learning how to become self-sufficient:

 

Meat. Every animal is made out of meat. I’m meat, y’all asses meat, everything is part of the buffet of the universe.  This here is an auroch, a big fierce mean creature that used to walk the face of the earth back when we all lived in caves.  And they would gobble them cave babies down right in front of the cave baby parents.  The cave man couldn’t do nothing about it, ‘cause they was too poor and too small.  Who up in here think the caveman was sitting around crying like a bunch of pussies? Y’all gotta think about that.  Any day now, the fabric of the universe is coming unraveled. Ice caps gonna melt, water’s gonna rise, and everything south of the levee is going under. Y’all better learn how to survive now.

 

Throughout the film, she functions as an educator, griot, and nurturer.  Despite teaching from a one-room schoolhouse, she is resourceful and resilient in giving what she believes best equips her students to survive.  She is shown giving Hushpuppy several herbs to use with her father whenever he faces a health crisis. In another scene, she checks on Hushpuppy to find out what she needs when sitting alone in front of the schoolhouse (as no one has picked her up).

 

Beasts situates the depiction of young girls in a positive light.  Hushpuppy is a character who conjures female archetypes; in her case, as consoler, guardian and informer.   In her father’s dying days, Hushpuppy tenderly fulfills a dying wish, feeding him his last supper,  sharing with him the nourishing vestiges she saved while on the barge. It is an endearing moment of affirmation and ushering provided by a daughter.   She also shares a dual role as a character and omniscient narrator. She personifies an “old soul,” enabled to witness relationships across different plains.  She is a medium between natural and spiritual worlds, constantly listening to animals, placing them to her ear, attentive to what they have to say.  She is an observant conduit between prehistoric and current times, keenly aware of the impact of imbalance.  Throughout the movie, she relays premonitions and warnings about what will occur if humankind and nature do not strike a balance.

 

Hushpuppy holding little chick

 

However, two things become problematic with the way Hushpuppy is constructed and rendered.  One problem lies within the dual role of Hushpuppy as simultaneously omniscient narrator and young character. How much can she know about natural order and only be all of six years old?  At that age, how can she articulate mythic aspects and prehistoric shortcomings of mankind?  Second, the archetypal aspects of her character that are positively represented become beclouded and muddied by the imagery of a pickaninny. Uniformed in wild hair, tattered clothes, dirty white galoshes and underwear worn as outer clothing, she reinvigorates the image of a “nappy-headed,” “backwater” wild child, which conflicts with the exaltation of her as a keenly aware wise child.  Although the film is attempting to maintain consistency across the situational context of the story and its setting by having Hushpuppy look and dress as she does, instead, her depiction echoes back to a depreciative doppelgänger.

 

Hushpuppy alone

 

Hushpuppy white boots

 

Place-Based Identity and Regional Stereotypes

Place plays an important role in Beasts.  Set in a seemingly pristine pre-Katrina expanse, the inhabitants of The Bathtub on the fictitious Isle de Charles Doucet keep to themselves. And want it to stay that way. Though part of Louisiana, The Bathtub functions solely within a self-exiled enclave.  It is disconnected by choice from any state-based identity, holding ties only as deep and wide as its own exclusive commune.

To the film’s credit, it situates The Bathtub within a larger narrative about the impact of modernity on people; despite conveniences offered by modernity, what can result are the unforeseen consequences of materialism.   The residents of The Bathtub are portrayed as minimally dependent on contemporary trappings and accoutrements.  Their reliance on herbs to heal, the catching of shellfish and fish with bare hands, and owning few material possessions, illustrates the residents as observers and preservers of simplicity.   This suggests that The Bathtub is a kind of paradise, and its inhabitants are frugal Adams and Eves.

 

Regionalism

 

Residents of The Bathtub intentionally make no attempt to interact or connect with the land and people on the other side of the levees.  Hushpuppy at her young age recognizes and adopts the dichotomous distinction between “them” and “us.” As stated by Wink while floating on the water with Hushpuppy, The Bathtub is deemed as unspoiled, versus the other side of the levees as ugly and stained by modernity:

They ain’t got nothing we got.  They only got holidays once a year. They got fish stuck in plastic wrappers. They got their babies stuck in carriages.  And chicken on sticks.

Modernity is situated as a threat, a contaminant that will dismantle the residents’ way of life in The Bathtub. If allowed.  Modernity is foreign, equated with being adversarial, inimical and unhelpful. However, the residents of The Bathtub come across as imbecilic. The attempt to portray the residents as preservationists results in them coming across as ignoramuses. Even if modern means are the only ones that can save them, they will resist and refuse them.  If not accepting the benefits that come with change kills them, so be it.  Literally.  For example, Wink vehemently refuses the benefits of medicine, even if it means increasing his longevity for his daughter.  Early in the film he is seen marching back home from the hospital, still wearing the bracelet and gown issued to him when admitted. He rebuffs needed care.  This will not be the only time he or fellow residents either flee from or flat out refuse help.

Although Beasts celebrates The Bathtub’s residents’ collective spirit of preservation against modernity, it exacerbates the typecasting of rural residents, characterizing them as too callow to accept help even when facing dire circumstances. Against better judgment to relocate to a safer place, several residents, including Wink and his daughter, choose to remain in The Bathtub during a massive storm. Afterwards, those that survived are salvaged, evacuated from the rubble, and relocated to a rescue facility. Kicking and screaming.  At the shelter, they collectively rebuff care.  The food is different, so Wink admonishes Hushpuppy to not eat it. The clothing is different; Hushpuppy is shown uncomfortable and made to feel awkward as she stands still, wearing a clean dress and combed hair.  Then, unexpectedly, in a hasty mass exodus, several of the residents flee from the “Open Arms” rescue facility. Their actions at the shelter and their fleeing is an exhibit more so of ignorant panic than deliberate calculated rebellion.

 

Flee from Open Arms

 

Return to the Bathtub

 

While the film attempts to elevate The Bathtub’s residents’ vigilance and preservation of land and customs as good things, it actually undercuts and undermines these postulations via regional and economic typecasting. Residents of The Bathtub, and by implication rural Southerners, are depicted as shiftless, unemployed, and alcoholic.  In all their vehemence against modernity, the modern invention of alcohol thrives; rivers of it are drunk abundantly and to excess.  At no time in the movie are the residents shown as resourceful.  No one is shown working, farming, repairing, etc.   These rural southerners of few economic resources do not come across as resourceful, resilient, and innovative, as “make way” or “make do” people.  While good-intentioned on the part of the filmmakers, what occurs instead is a morphing and caricaturing of them as boozy, loutish, and unconcerned. They are displayed singularly as only and simply scavengers of the land succumbing to folly.

 

A Mash-up of Historicism and Mysticism?

The film’s attempt “to go deep” succumbs to the weight of doing it well.  The intermixture of exploring how inhabitants of a bayou live out a belief of libertarianism/self-governance, complemented by Hushpuppy’s harkening of prehistoric times, makes the movie implode on itself.  Blending these two threads falls short because the film tries to do so with underdeveloped arguments, ambiguous allegories, and unexplained symbols. The argument of all life being interconnected between time and space, and that responsibility must be exercised in preserving such connection, is imprecisely and vaguely explored. References to aurochs, their thawing out and their stampeding toward The Bathtub to restore order are anachronistic. What does this specific group of animals who are not from the region or time period have to do with what is currently occurring?  The presentation of aurochs as a symbol of the past coming to correct the present is obfuscated by myriad questions of why the writer and filmmaker selected this particular species.  Combining these two storylines, one of the past coming to render judgment on the present, and the trials of survival within a specific bayou,  creates cacophony rather than co-informed clarity.  Such abstracted associations detract from what could otherwise be a potent message.

 

Auroch and Hushpuppy

Beasts of the Southern Wild sets forth on an ambitious experiment amalgamating several conflicts within one film.  Character versus self, character versus nature, and character versus society each receive treatment and examination within a combinative narrative.   As if not challenging enough, it valiantly explores them blending numerous genres, culling from avant-garde, fantasy, magical realism, ethnography, coming-of-age and memoir.  Yet it is the scope of multiple conflicts and genre blending that eclipses its potential genius.  As well, the film’s effort in exposing how race, class, gender and regionalism inform these conflicts and complicates their resolution is equivocal. At best.

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.

 

Movies as Mirrors: Reflecting on “For Colored Girls”

This blog describes the impact of Ntozake Shange’s groundbreaking choreopoem on my identity as a woman of color and a writer, compared to the impact of attending Tyler Perry’s movie adaptation with my husband. 

In the late eighties, one book changed my life.  Ms. Kupperman-Guinals, our drama teacher and teacher extraordinaire, pulled me to the side after class and gave me a copy of Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf to read.  Already a self-proclaimed poet, I was writing poems as mirrors of my days–the hardship of being a teenager, the beauty of nature, using big words to say small things, lamenting the crushes I had, and short stories about falling in love with Prince.  When I look back on the reading of that book, it has become a pivotal event in my life.  I know now was given a tool and mirror into so much deeper.

For Colored Girls was the first play I read written as both poem and play–a choreopoem.  In content and structure, it gave me inspiration as a fledging writer to see what can be done with a narrative about being a woman of color, with a unique frame within which to explore and share that phenomenon.  Told from multiple vantage points personified in colors, it bore witness of who we are (and I am) on paper.  Stories of trials, tribulations, triumphs, excavations and epiphanies all woven in a metaphoric tapestry of a rainbow.  A rainbow of womanhood.  Reading the play, I felt like I was seen.  Known.  Believed.   More than a statistic or stereotype.

For Colored Girls has become for me a tool and mentor text for using writing as confession, revelation, empowerment, sharing.  I thank Ms. Kupperman-Guinals for giving me this torch to see myself and the world I could create.  It later fueled for me the inspiration to write an undergraduate honors thesis on the works of Ntozake Shange (“The Negotiation of Silence in the Female Characters in Ntozake Shange’s Texts”), as well as an original play (titled “Episodes of Womanhood/Mahogany Women’s Movements/A Blackened Woman’s Voice from a Different World”).  Years later, in 1992, while writing my thesis, I would have the honor of meeting the original torchbearer herself at Crossroads Theatre who inscribed my copy of  The Love Space Demands with saying “Thank you for being who you are.”

Ms. Shange and Ms. Kupperman-Guinals gave gifts that keep on giving.

So when Tyler Perry’s “For Colored Girls” came out, I was excitedly reserved.  Would the movie he produced captivate me the same way as did the author?  Would I feel the same epiphany and inspiration in being a woman of color again, or would they be muted by the sacrilegious interjection of Madea in womanface?  For me, “For Colored Girls” is one of those works that “should” stay as a text.  Something different, even disappointing, can happen when the vivifying of a text is done onscreen.  Some things get lost in translation, which is what I felt with both “The Watchmen” and especially “Beloved.”  Beloved emerging out of the water and speaking in first person impact the reader in a way that the delivery of an image cannot fully capture.

Bad colds and conflicting dates kept me from seeing the movie with sister friends who wanted to make a dinner and a movie event from seeing the movie.  We knew we would have much to talk about.  Ironically, my husband, a movie buff, volunteered to go.  Fingers crossed . . . we attended.  Afterward, we spent an afternoon walking around the movie theatre parking lot debriefing.

Kerwin recounted that the movie upset him, leaving him to wonder if Tyler Perry hated men.  He felt objectified and shrunk to one dimension.  He disclosed that based upon the characterization of men of color in the movie, a man could only be  a selfish “down low” HIV-positive husband who intentionally infects his wife, a traumatized alcoholic war veteran who abuses his wife and throws his offspring out the window, a slick-tongued rapist, a two-timing non-committal gigolo, or a john.  Or absent.  The married good cop was just a flash in a pan.  To him, there were no layers, textures, complexity explored.  Just stereotypes delivered.  Again.  And when I told him there were no male characters in the original choreopoem, he was befuddled by why they were included by Perry in the movie.

I wished my husband experienced what I did in reading the play over two decades ago.  I genuinely wanted him to know what it felt like for me to see your complexion and complexity captured and given back to you as a gift, as I did with both my teacher and favorite author.  Instead, he saw himself shrunken, caricatured.  Again.  This time, by his own.

Since seeing the movie together, my husband’s sentiments leave in me a feeling of responsibility for using words and images so others can see themselves.  How can the poetry I write serve the goal of relaying my thoughts and ideas yet provide breathing room and a space for others to see and experience themselves?  Relative to the two of us, how do I serve as a mirror of his truthful reflections?  And, relative to us all, how can we live so that we serve as mentor text and mirror to our best and most possible selves?