Making Memories Plate by Plate

Food is sacrament. Forkful by forkful, something old unfolds and something new begins to take its first breath.

Food is sacrament. Through its creations and sharing, I am educated in how to give and bless back the family and friends that purpose my living. Family albums bloom with snapshots where we celebrate anniversaries, show thanks for another year via birthday dinners, mark rites of passage such as retirement and commiserate over one’s passing.

Growing up
Picnic in Riverside Park
Family Gathering, 1995
Family Gathering, 1995
family birthday celebration
Celebrating Dad’s birthday

Growing up, creating Mother’s Day dinner was how I showed—in small part given the grandness of her love—the honor and appreciation I held for her.  I tired my father in an exhaustive day of shopping for everything we did not already have in pantry or freezer.  I used every pot and pan, to my father’s frustration as he was the designated dishwasher. I enveloped the kitchen in a fury of preparing exotic dishes (one year attempting Hunter Style Chicken for dinner, another year a complicated strawberry crepe-style cookie with homemade whipped cream for dessert) in an effort to convey a love supreme. Dinner would be met with my mother’s humble smile, receptive palate, and a willing stomach.  When an adult, and in the hospital recuperating from my tonsillectomy, she traveled a great distance via mass transportation just to bring me Carvel pistachio ice cream. Although melted after her long trip, both my eyes and throat swelled with gratitude. She came to see me, and brought with her a cherished artifact of childhood to help me heal.

The cooking for others has become for me a humble tool to thank others for the difference they have made in my life. I would throw dinner parties as a teenager, and even as a young adult. It was my parents’ way of “compensating” for being old school in not letting me go to house parties or hang out in the city.

mom and dada
Mom and Dad helping me prep and serve at one of my “tribal gatherings”

Although somewhat sheltered, I did not feel shrunken. Rather, their strictness churned my innovation to think of ways to spend time with friends. Food became a means to hang out, to preserve, affirm, and harness friendships. And, it was one of the few times my parents would allow me to be in mixed company.

Regardless of attending universities and colleges in different parts of the country, these “tribal gatherings” as they would come to be called was where over the breaking of bread we, old friends and new budding buddies, would rekindle memories of crazy times growing up, and new life experiences. And we would laugh, laugh, laugh. I remember N’Gai breaking out in singing Rick James’ part of “Fire and Desire,” and how his dramatization both impressed us (he could SING), and humor us as was characteristic of him. My home, and the food prepared there, became means to bridge the old parts of me that happened there and in the old neighborhood with the new parts of me that where happening everywhere else.

College Sisters Kimberly, Sandra, me, and Faith
College Sisters Kimberly, Sandra, me, and Faith

And the ethos shaping these gatherings was one I brought back to campus. One time I made collard greens with turkey, as Kim, Daryle and I took a break from late night studying to exchange stories and watch “Showtime at the Apollo.”  One time, through the graciousness of my dorm RA and family, I hosted a dinner in our rec room with classmates to celebrate Black History Month. It became a means to bridge my family with classmates of diverse backgrounds, a time I will cherish these almost twenty years later.

So food has become at times a tool and other times a bridge.  It is a means for taking care of others, affirming love for others as well as preserving and forging new relationships. One Valentine’s Day, I was upset about not having a boyfriend, so Mom made a picnic in our living room. When I was in grad school, my dad came to visit me for the weekend, and we went to an Italian restaurant and ate a simple dish of spaghetti and marinara sauce.  In that moment, I was both his little girl and his biggest dream. When mom and I hosted bus rides to Atlantic City, we wanted everyone to feel like family, and we used food to do so. It was important to my mom that our guests have something hot to eat for our long trip, a tradition I still practice in making breakfast for my family.  During those trips, we gave a bagged breakfast of sausage, rolls, and juice during the departure, and slices of homemade cakes we made on the return trip. Those experiences even launched for us a small catering venture, where we would make fried turkeys and cakes for sale.  After my father’s passing, and before her own, Mom and I created a new ritual of making food for the winter.  We would spend several weekends visiting farms and supermarkets to stock up on produce. Then, undergo the laborious yet loving task of prepping and preserving food for the winter.  I loved coming home from school to then return with pickles, spiced plums, beets, and stewed tomatoes. Just a few years ago, my childhood friend Carla came to visit me at a tapas bar where she shared her manuscript for her first book of poetry.  Later, when we went to dinner in the city to celebrate its release, she was so touched by the server’s attentiveness and loving words that she gave her one of her newly pressed books for free.  Generosity reciprocating generosity. At the annual Thanksgiving dinner where we all congregate at my in-laws’ home, my father-in-law has passed the torch of carving the turkey to me (I do a damn good job, I must say). But his humility and benevolence leave me feeling cherished and loved. I am a witness that the breaking of bread together heals, redeems and forges.

Growing a relationship plate by plate holds particular fondness for me with my husband. Morsel by morsel, we have unfolded fears, divulged personal trials, asked for and given advice, pondered the future, incessantly chortled, and healed from challenges. We have enjoyed cuisine throughout the east coast, from the fried seafood of City Island to nostalgic hotdogs with mustard at Nathan’s in Coney Island. From being blown away by the deeply developed flavors of fire and emotion conjured by the creole cooking at Marsha Brown’s in New Hope, PA (which we would later return after he proposed) to the down home savor captured by the cornbread at Warmdaddy’s in Philly.  From the pitstops made while traveling to see family down south to the lovingly prepared succotash, ribs and rice at my Aunt Shirley’s dining room table in South Carolina. We’ve counted the restaurants and eateries we visited, and we have been to about two dozen (many repeatedly, some NEVER again) in our years together.

Engagement Night Dinner at Marsha Brown's.
Engagement Night Dinner at Marsha Brown’s

Yet a particular collection of restaurants mark significant events with my husband and I, those of his childhood friend Craig.

Craig is a man of great humility and few words. But the cuisine of his restaurants shouts and testifies. My initiation into the power of his food was at Smoke Joint. Having South Carolinian roots, I was primed for home cooking, and the food did not disappoint. BBQ ribs that fall off the bone, greens that summon you to hum from their deliciousness, and beans that tantalize with traces of sweet and smoky flirtations on your tongue.  But the beautiful flavor of the food was a means to something greater. It was a conduit through which we grew to know one another.  Hurling jokes, asking questions, humming, we hankered down into the succulence of food that would then begin the teaching of how we would come to feed one another in soul.

Smoke Joint

It would be at Peaches, another of Craig’s restaurants, that I would then meet the urban frontiersman of fine food, and his life partner, Laura. I knew this meeting, and the breaking of bread with them at their place, was pivotal. I was meeting people Kerwin holds sacred, as he and Craig grew up together, in neighborhood and in church, and Laura is a woman whom they both highly regard and respect. If allowed, I would be initiated into a sacred group.  The restaurant felt welcoming, the exchange of greetings and smiles very promising, and the offerings of libation by Laura let me know that this initiation and assessment would be affectionately administered. Then, and now, I am fascinated and inspired by Craig and Laura being a couple who withstood the trials and challenges of growing a marriage, a family, a dream and a business simultaneously.

Returning back to the food, it did not disappoint. The chicken and Andouille gumbo always opens and breaks my heart.  I taste home every time I have it. It harkens me back to when Mom and I made it together. I had the task of stirring the dangerous but delicious roux, harmonizing the flour and hot oil in the cast iron skillet, building the base that my mom would then complete, and we lovingly enjoy. In homage to that conjured memory, and the powerful gift of Craig’s restaurant to channel it, I continue to make it on my own at home.

Peaches

Like the role of food when growing up, Peaches has also come for us to be a meeting place for old friends and new family. Periodically, another childhood friend, Chris, visits Brooklyn. When in town we converge at Peaches to banter and make new bliss. Like me, Chris orders the same thing, the Shrimp Po Boy, as it has come for him to be the signature dish that holds his memories, heart and stomach captive.  Sometimes Kerwin and I have gone as a family, bringing at the time our oldest son, as we make a new memory savoring deep-rooted food. In similar fashion, Chris’ wife Deshae also created a special moment when meeting for the first time by having us all go out together at the local Outback Steakhouse after visiting their church. Meeting her, and spending time with them and their family, has made an indelible impression on my heart ever since.

And then there is Hothouse. The trinity of brothers met there when it newly opened, celebrating Craig’s new accomplishment and their time-tested bond. Kerwin was so taken by the fried chicken that he raved and raved and raved when he returned home.  I was intrigued. Pregnant and enlarged with our first child, we went. A tight wooden space, it resonates with the décor of a speakeasy.  But plates of that fried chicken swelled nostalgic within me, so much so that I think it is in part why our firstborn LOVES chicken. Hothouse now comes to be a place in our hearts that marks our celebration of an old friend’s accomplishments, and our celebration of growing a family.

And just this past Thanksgiving weekend, we were able to celebrate again a milestone in our dear friend’s career. The opening of Marietta. As an annual ritual, Craig and his wife Laura host several friends and family at one of their restaurants for Thanksgiving. Regrettably we missed it because of heavy traffic, and needed to get to my in-laws on time. But that following Saturday Craig, Chris and our family met there to break bread and make new memories.

Family
The family

Over the years I have come to regard Craig and Chris as my “big brothers,” feeling comfortable with asking questions, cracking jokes, and now, making sure that Keith and Maceo get to know their “uncles.”  A cornucopia of fried foods—chicken, whiting, and green tomatoes—overflowed our beige wood table.  Craig ordered on Kerwin’s behalf a variety of plates given Kerwin’s indecisiveness in what delectables to finally select. The butternut squash and mushroom risotto Craig ordered was decadent and quickly devoured. My second born, Maceo, a very finicky eater, grabbed for every plate that graced the table.

Marietta 2
Mommy and Maceo

Even under watchful eyes, he somehow caught hold of a chicken bone which he gnawed and gnawed until by his growling in enjoyment we realized what he was doing. After its removal, he settled for sneaking some watercress.  But he loved the sautéed greens I fed him by hand. Eventually I had to battle him in getting some for myself.  Good food will make you selfish.

Craig and Kerwin
Kerwin, Keith, and Uncle Craig

What was enjoyable about sitting with my family and brothers was the mutuality.  We peppered one another with questions. For Craig, I inquired what it was like to maintain several restaurants, his inspiration for the cuisine selected, reasons for the décor selected, and next ventures. Chris reciprocated in asking thoughtful questions for me to consider around Keith’s social readiness for school. For me personally, what was wonderful to behold was this band of brothers, these fathers, these spiritual kinsmen, spending time once again with one another.

Chris
Uncle Chris

Marietta and the men made me feel at home. I could be mom, and also kick up my feet.  Keith and I took advantage of the empty space (due to the holiday), giving my at times restless son carte blanche to explore.  Up and down the corridor we walked and giggled, touching plants and holiday décor, investigating textures and shapes. Ever the teacher, I built in mini-lessons about opposites, such as cold (when touching the window) and warm, outside (looking out the window), and inside. I also indulged the enjoyment of some delicious cocktails. Craig “reminded” me to indulge my quiet time. Sage and gin make a splendid mix. In my taking care of others, I was taken care of too.

Craig and Maceo
Uncle Craig and Maceo

There is something about good food and good times that summons me to find the tools and means to recreate them and share them again. Craig’s food so inspired me that again, in homage, I made renditions of them at home. Kerwin delighted in the risotto at the restaurant, so I made a butternut squash risotto with parmesan cheese this past week. I was so seduced by the bite and heat of the sautéed mixed greens that I made some too. Keith was an ever-faithful tester, who volunteered sampling several forkfuls in various stages of preparation (though they did not turn out as good as at the restaurant . . .will keep trying). Knowing Kerwin is a fan of mushrooms, I was inspired to make something we never had. Grilled cheese sandwiches made with challah, Portobello mushrooms, fresh sage, and fontina cheese. Kerwin inhaled the sandwich in just a few bites. I felt affirmed.

Risotto Greens

I see in my firstborn a growing fascination with food too. When in the kitchen, he breaks from his own play asking for seasoning. Sprinkling small amounts in his little hands, he stares in study at the different grains and colored powders, devours, assesses, and then asks for more. He can make distinctions between nutmeg, cloves, kosher salt, adobo, ground onions, garlic powder, and coarse black pepper (his favorite). At just two years old he asks for them by name.  This exchange can delay meals at times, but as my Mom did with me, and Craig for his customers, I am learning how to create foods as a portal into new relationships, and bridges into new ways to create love for others.

Keith and Greens

Forkful by forkful, something old unfolds and something new begins to take its first breath.

For more information about these restaurants, and menus, please visit http://www.bcrestaurantgroup.com/.

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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. 

*****

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.

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/

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

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.


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.

 

This Woman’s Work: Blueprints for Being an Activist

Article for Bronze Magazine Anniversary Issue, November/December 2011

a woman sleeps as if
tomorrow a war will begin” –Vera Pavlova

For the 1st anniversary of Bronze Magazine (http://bronzemagonline.com), I wrote this article about the activism of women locally and internationally.  It highlights the involvement and investment of women in efforts spanning environmental issues, AIDS awareness, exposing governmental tyranny, educational advocacy, self- defense, and helping adolescents plan and prepare for the future.  But the writing of the article extends beyond telling about the impact of others.  I wrote it to also make a space for women to tell about the work they too are doing here and abroad.  To create an open space to share what each of us is doing to make a difference, move others from margin to center, contemplate a new world, and speak truth to power. 

I invite you to share at the end of this article the ways YOU are making a difference.

 

This morning I began drafting a blog about inspirational women, meditating on the living examples of goodness they harbor and promote.  Sister friends like Carla, Lisa, Kim, Karen, and Tonya balancing being employed while raising children, pursuing personal passions, and nurturing relationships. Deceased kindred such as my mother, aunt, and Eastern Star sisters who by bloodline and example exemplify what can become possible.  Their dreams pulse now in my blood.  Writers like Audre Lorde who used words as tools to instigate and liberate, playwrights like Adrienne Kennedy who pushed the envelope of drama by tooling it to shed light into our darknesses.

Yet, I indulge the guilty pleasure of watching the “Basketball Wives” and “Real Housewives” franchises, with a fascination of what will happen next.  Who will be the next woman to get a drink and then a fist thrown at her, a knife of venomous words plunged into her back, a secret put on blast, a reputation that gets her thrown under the bus?  But the actions and outcomes are cyclical.  After repetitiously seeing the cattiness, two-facedness, duplicitous fidelity, diabolical planning, sinister backstabbing, escalating emotional bullying and downright physical assault, a command for different is radiating from inside. I think I reached the saturation point of witnessing the broadcast of the basest aspect of womanhood, and the affirmation such shows get in the forms of high viewership and popularity.  But at the end of the hour, what can be culled as inspiration, a lesson, experience, strategy or new outlook that we can glean from watching women on “reality” shows to then employ and emulate in our life’s work?  There’s nothing new to learn.  So why are such shows so popular, despite the nullifying examples of trailblazing women like Suzanne Malveaux, Shirley Chisholm, Cathy Hughes, Rolonda Watts, Malkia Amala Cyril, Shirley Ceasar, Ursula Burns, Cicely Tyson, Carol Jenkins, Donna Brazile, and Oprah Winfrey?

I’ve reached critical mass.  A new reaction beside distaste and criticism has to occur.  Taking my own thoughts off the video editing floor, I am taking some time to reflect on the tenacity, resilience, spirituality, talent, sacrifice, perseverance, benevolence, insight, intelligence, ferocity, savvy, surrender and serenity harbored and offered by the phenomenal women who use breath other than to bait kindred for public entertainment.

What’s absent needs to be made present.

Marypat Hector, in her recent blog “Enough with the Basketball Wives, Let’s Talk About Girl Power!” identifies several young women under the age of 30 whose lives, while not regularly broadcast on a weekly show, demonstrate contributions that confirm what our hands can produce when devoted to creating change instead of slapping a woman in the face and decimating her worth.[1]  Through her efforts as Executive Director of the National Action Network and contributing writer to NewsOne, Tamika D. Mallory uses her life and access to media outlets to bring to light issues of violence within the African-American community. [2] Dominique Sharpton, Director of Membership for the National Action Network and thespian, employs her talents resulting in the near tripling of the organization’s membership from since 2008, producing her father’s syndicated radio show, organizing marches and rallies, and creating several venues and outlets for youth to express their artistic talents.[3]  CNN Hero, activist,  author, college student and black belt martial artist Dallas Jessup, after seeing in the news the abduction of a young girl, uses her life to train girls and women in self defense through self-produced training videos, and facilitating activism within communities worldwide through her non-profit organization Just Yell Fire.[4] Environmental activist and author Jordan Howard, after being a Green Ambassador at Environmental Charter High School in Los Angeles, employs her learning of the environment to galvanize others, using films to educate the masses about sustainable living, leading and organizing the Rise Above Plastics “Student Speaker Series” that trains fellow young adults in how to promote environmental awareness within their communities, and participating in various political and social forums to raise awareness.[5]  AIDS activist and living testimony Hydeia Broadbent devotes her life experience of being born with HIV to inform the consciousness of the world, doing so through several national television and radio shows, educational institutions, panel discussions as well as international forums.[6]

And I’d also like to add three friends who are phenomenal agents of change. Angela Romans, currently Senior Advisor on Education to the Mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, has worked in several community-based organizations, public schools, institutions of higher education, and political capacities to avail post-secondary opportunities to under-represented youth. [7] Tiffany Gardner is founder and Executive Director of One World Foundation, whose mission is to “develop and place young leaders (18 to 25) from poor and under-represented backgrounds in human rights and development service projects and prepare them for leadership in both the public and private sectors.”[8]  Finally, school social worker and aspiring graduate student Tonetta Collins works tirelessly in her job and within the organization CEOKids of Atlanta,[9] describing her work within the organization as helping “middle schoolers connect what they are learning in school to real world professions . . . to realize their gifts and strengths at a time when their need for social acceptance becomes important and connect them to the possibilities.”

One-sentence descriptions of the activists mentioned here is an injustice to their selfless intentions and the impact of their work.  But, the point of naming each of these women and their contributions is to reclaim space polluted with exaggerated and bifurcating depictions of women:  we have media suggesting the “best” of women that is “worthy” of extensive broadcast is the banality of the actions of a select few.   Such is the purpose, nature, and success of the beast of media. These depictions are a concerted effort toward what Martha Lauzen in the documentary “Miss Representation” associates with symbolic annihilation.  Such depictions kill off a consciousness of what we are and can be other than what is harmfully exaggerated, intentionally manufactured and massively promulgated.  “You can’t be what you can’t see,” admonishes Marian Wright Edelman, which is the point of why some media images of women prevail over others.  Ask any of us to rattle off the names of “Basketball Wives” or “Real Housewives” cast women and it can be done in a heartbeat.  Ask us to name several contemporary female activists and HOW they pave roads for change, and we become mute, having first to do some research.

The women activists in this text counter such toxic messaging.  They are mirrors for us to see an affirmative reflection of ourselves, a counter portrayal illustrating purposeful uses of our breath in harnessing and improving others’ lives.  Mirrors that empower by deflecting the media’s transmission and instead position us to learn blueprints for making a difference locally and abroad.  The “reality show” wives are not extraordinary, nor are the scope and mission of these activists outside your own reach.

The message?  Contemplate how you ARE doing something to make the lives of others better.  Why is such reflection essential to our personal and collective existence?  Because the stakes are really high.  Consider the following statistics from the documentary “Miss Representation” that illustrates the disparity in the portrayal of women, and their actual presence in important media and political junctures:[10]

  • Only 16% of protagonists in films are female
  • Women comprise only 16% of all film writers, directors, producers, cinematographers and editors
  • Women own only 5.8% of all television stations and 6% of radio stations
  • Only 7% of directors and 10% of film writers are women
  • Women make up 51% of the U.S. population but only 17% of Congress
  • 34 women have ever served as governors in the United States, compared to 2,319 men
  • 67 countries worldwide have had female presidents or prime ministers, of which the United States is not one of them

In examining yourself, what are the ways YOU make a difference in households, schools, communities, and board rooms, regardless if the cameras are on our off?  And are you broadcasting how you make a difference in the lives of others?  Who knows the work you are doing, and using YOU as an exemplar to learn how to replicate and reproduce it?

Broadening the scope of women’s work worldwide, we recently received news of three remarkable women who do not spend their time pointing out flaws and blasting the past of cast members.  Instead, they present palms and hearts to other women as allies to prove themselves embraceable.  Use their voices for the protection of others. Offer themselves as sister kindred to create chains of solidarity.  Harness and promote others’ potential.  Their lives are proffered as a sacrificial proof of commitment.  While their stories have taken time to traverse the oceans (regrettably), Leymah Gbowee mobilizes Liberian women to save their country from 14 years of civil strife, Yemenite Tawakkul Karman protests for the rights of journalists and an end to governmental corruption, and  Liberian President Ellie Johnson Sirleaf works in private and public sectors to rebuild her beloved country.  They have, now with the Nobel Peace Prize announcement, arrived on the shores of our minds, and I hope garnering a growing consciousness for what WE can do as women across borders physical and mental.

Leymah Gbowee is no stranger to the afflictions of war.  She was no stranger to children conscripted as toy soldiers and catalysts for a war they did not create but would be responsible for exploitatively executing (literally).  Young girls and women’s bodies were commoditized and brutally raped as the spoils of war.  Hunger became the crown and shroud of too many Liberians, with starved children dropping as new food for flies.  Liberia’s history of strife between warmongering avaricious warlords and a corrupt political regime, and its consequences, were regrettably familiar.  Having had enough, she prayed for peace. While pregnant with her third child, she incubated perseverance and persistence, birthing them into a mobilization of women to “pray the devil back to hell.”[11]

Leymah’s first work was transcending assumptions of religious difference, moving beyond fears of diluting or soiling each another’s religious dispositions.  Armed with conviction, and with fellow women compatriots, she mobilized Liberian Christian and Muslim women to unite in the commerce of peace, forging a collective effort to pressure religious leaders to advocate for them.   These “Market Women,” the fodder for what would later become WIPNET (Women in Peacebuilding Network), initially began protesting in white garments along roadsides of the presidential convoy so their need for peace would glare against the tinted windows.  Despite refusals of an audience, they continued to peacefully protest until gaining an audience with President Charles Taylor on April 23, 2003.  Stepping on fear and into faith, Leymah vocalized their position statement, presenting their entreaty for peace within their nation.

Following this presentation, peace talks between then President Taylor and warring factions convened in Accra, Ghana.  Assembling with Liberian women refugees already in Accra, together with the women of WIPNET they stood guard, daily vigilant to the need for peace in their country and attentively watching the warlords and President make progress to this end. After almost two months of posturing and jockeying for position, and seeing these men enjoy comforts of hospitality they did not enjoy while in the bushes, the women were fed up, and on July 21, 2003, they locked arms around the building where the talks were being held, asserting they will not allow the men to leave until the peace talks were taken seriously, and a treaty was reached.  Subsequently the talks changed in tone, content, and direction, and with eyes and pressure offered from the international world (the threat of funding to be cut off), change came.  Taylor was exiled to Nigeria, and a transitional government was installed.  WIPNET under Leymah’s efforts, knowing that the struggle for peace just began, returned working in their communities to promote the reconciliation of Liberia (such as forgiving the rebel soldiers), as well as educating their people about the candidates, laying the fodder for sister Nobel Peace Prize recipient Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in 2006 to become the first woman elected President of Liberia.

I write about Leymah’s work in detail because I had never heard of her, this radical mission or the incredible accomplishments of these Liberia women, until the announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize and then watching the documentary “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” in October.  Given this event occurred in 2003, not knowing this women’s work until eight years later sheds a glaring spotlight on my own myopia.  Saturated with too many colonizing lies.   You may have experienced the same.  The rallying of women who were stripped of all things but belief, makes the rallying of women over futile gossip and fabricated drama pale in comparison.  On the “Racialicious” Blog, a blog about the intersections of race and pop culture, guest contributor RVCBard writes about such colonization in his post “Fandom and its Hatred of Black Women Characters.”[12]  Both the author and several dozen respondents commiserated that the syndicated depictions of women of color lack multi-dimensionality, yet fans’ responses have been vitriol.  To this observation, RVCBard comments that “what gets overlooked is that the way these characters are hated [referencing such characters as Martha Jones, Tara Thornton, Guinevere, and Mercedes Jones] happens in a particularly racialized and gendered way that echoes a lot of stereotypes about Black women.”[13] I would add to this mix “reality” shows as well.  Why aren’t there reality shows about women activists?  It has to go beyond simply the suppositions of low ratings and lack of interest.

Again, this is why it is so important that the work you do to make change be made known, not for kudos, but as catalysts and models for others illustrating what can be done, and how.  It took an announcement for such work to get a blip on my radar.  I am sure I am not alone.  Imagine if we pipelined the work we were each doing to improve the community and world, this information would not be exceptional.  Maybe I/we need to develop better pipelines to disseminate such information and role models to one another, instead of allowing the media to spoon-feed us stereotypes and caricatures.

Speaking of pipelines, Leymah’s work was the precedent and ground-laying foundation for another of the Nobel Peace Prize sisters.  Kindred recipient and countrywoman Ellie Johnson Sirleaf, veteran in finance and political sectors, has grounded her life’s work in nation building. Out of ashes of political strife and economic exploitation, she has been instrumental in helping the phoenix of Liberia resurrect itself.  She has served in several professional and political capacities and women’s groups.  Over the span of four decades, she served as one of the founding members  of  the International Institute for Women in Political Leadership Liberia’s Minister of Finance, President of the Liberian Bank for Development and Investment (LBDI), Vice President of CITICORP’s Africa Regional Office in Nairobi, Senior Loan Officer at the World Bank, Vice President for Equator Bank, and under the auspice of United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) served as Assistant Administrator and Director of its Regional Bureau of Africa with the rank of Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations.[14]   Even in exile she continued to work on initiatives to prosper Liberia, such as the Kormah Development and Investment Corporation, a venture capital vehicle for African entrepreneurs, and Measuagoon, a Liberian non-profit community development organization that helps war-devastated rural communities rebuild themselves (doing such things as in 2002 bringing improved sanitation to the Budumbura Camp, a Liberian refugee camp in Ghana), and later subsidizing young girls’ education.[15]  In 2003, when Charles Taylor was exiled and the National Transitional Government of Liberia was formed, she served as Chairperson of the Governance Reform Commission, later culminating in her unprecedented inauguration on January 16, 2006 as the first female President of Liberia.  In this role, she continued her work to build her country by fostering relationships with regional partners and the international community, and attracting resources to rebuild Liberia’s infrastructure.  She has served on several peace-oriented, women-empowerment, transcontinental and international initiatives, and several advisory boards.

The Nobel Peace Prize trinity of transformation and advocacy is completed by Yemenite Tawakkul Karman.  Journalist and human rights advocate, she has taken the tools of her voice and beliefs to collect and rally her people.   The catalyst for her activism was the refusal of the government to intervene in the intentional displacement of 30 families expelled from their village so the land could be given to a tribal leader close to the president. [16]   To quote Karman, “They never responded to one of our demands.  It made it clear to me that this regime must fall.” Engaged in weekly protests since 2007, she established with compatriots a tent camp called “Change Square” in the heart of the capital city of Sanaa.[17] [18] Tawakkul’s work has been advocating for the rights of free press, heading such groups as “Women Journalists Without Chains.”  Additional advocacy entails demanding the release of political prisoners, unabashed protest against granting immunity to corrupt government officials of the current political regime, and being a parliament member of Al-Islah (Yemeni Congregation for Reform).[19]  She is both the first Yemenite and Arab woman to receive the award.

An intersection shared by all three NPP peacemakers is that they are all mothers.  They harness motherhood as motivation for their activism, an impetus for improving the lives of all, especially children, so they may inherit a better world.   Interestingly enough, motherhood is also a commonality shared with their “reality wives” counterparts.  The difference? The former spend no time labeling potential comrades in struggle as “worthless,” “jumpoffs,” or “crazy.”  They do not use voice or venom to garner and manufacture divisiveness, alienate or create pariahs from potential allies.  These activists employ their energies and talents to fling fists not at one another over fabricated squabbles, but to the brick and mortar of oppression.  They use their talents to channel and forge new pathways and possibilities.  They neither agitate already festering wounds, nor manufacture confrontations that last across episodes and legacies.  Leymah demonstrates cunning ability to transcend potential religious barriers to unite Christian and Muslim women in a united front.  Tawakkul transcends religious, political, and gender barriers to unite the voices of Yemeni people into one.  President Sirleaf integrates various initiatives to unite a people torn by war into a country of prosperity.

We don’t have to act like Pavlovian dogs conditioned to respond as “trained” by the media. We can bolster and build instead of berate or resign ourselves to pre-determined corners.  Our national sheroes and three Nobel Peace Prize Women Warriors offer alternative routes and models for how to use our energies and resources to magnify ours’ and other’s talents to promote and harness them all for the greater good of both gender and world. “Miss Representation” closes with offering suggestions for how we can do such work . . .

  • Stop scrutinizing each other
  • Support media that champions accomplished women
  • Boycott media that objectifies and degrades women
  • Write your own stores and create your own media about powerful women in non-traditional roles
  • Be a mentor to others
  • May we all make empowering other women and girls a priority

I am hoping at the end of this blog you will take a moment to write and post the ways you ARE an agent of change.  This could be the pipeline that activates change in others.  Please share your blueprints, and pass them down to us.  After reading a draft of this article, my friend/brother/mentor John Jenkins shared with me its impact on him:

“I am inspired to use my mouth and mind to spread good positive stories of impact so that others gain the authority to do the same. And in this way we will begin to create the counter-narrative of who we are, who women are in this world.”

In tribute to the women mentioned, and to you, I share an original poem about the fortitude of women activists and the lessons they pass down.

What’s absent needs to be made present.

****************************************


 

The North Star (for All Women Warriors)

Women/compose the North Star/

visions from their minds endow its shine,

spin its beams wide from dreams, and give it

pulsation from ripening affirmations/

transmitting from the transcended to the transcending.

 

Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman

clasped my hand,

hastening through muck and

dark with steeled steering

commanding, “Follow the North Star!”

 

They relay my hand to Ida B. Wells

who deposits pen into palm

to record and remind the world of

the law of lynching and lynching of the law

decreeing, “Write the North Star!”

 

She brought me to meet

Mary McCloud Bethune

who conferred my other hand with a degree/

with mind elevated, emancipated by education

declaring, “Teach others of the North Star!”

 

Then Zora Neale Hurston

visited on campus/

witnessing pen and degree advised

“Now chile, youz got th’ degree fo’ da mind,

Now ya need th’ degree of da spirit!”

Took me down to the muck,

shaking me all through

the Everglades, New Orleans, and the islands,

sprinkling dialects and roots on me,

and unleashing, “Conjure with the North Star!”

 

Then Septima Clark came forging through/

recruiting/opening Citizenship schools that

farm the word and grow the vote/

took me into crowded back rooms with adult kin

compelling, “Build a bridge for others to the North Star!”

 

She carried me West to Angela Davis

who on sidewalk and in classroom

vivified the intersections of politics, activism and

the responsibility of change/

escorting me from California to Cuba,

showing me light in prison of industry and prism of mind/

shot my arm straight into the sky

demanding, “Protest in the name of the North Star!”

 

Then we traipsed to the dance festival where

Judith Jamison and the troupe

were summoning the spirits.

The Black Swan, as principal, in principle

pulled me to her stage,

and sauntered, careened, strutted, sundered

my body into chanting limbs

proclaiming, “Dance in the name of the North Star!”

 

I pirouetted cross country back to the East

where Ntozake Shange recognized

who I was to be/

put a stage in my mouth/

sat me over roses to menstruate/

performing surgery on the art of me/

expunging mayhem/so it emote milk/

uttering, “Make language/for the North Star!”

 

Then my mother,

forger of road from heaven to earth

put her hand to her stomach

feeling for my hand back,

beckoning, “Now, come. Be the North Star!”

© TMY 2011

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It’s my sincere hope that this article/blogpost serve as a launching pad for others to become inspired by learning and familiarizing themselves about the work YOU do, to use YOU as a role model, and to contact YOU to contribute. If this blogpost does this, then the mission of writing this article has been fulfilled. To post your response, click the red “Response” button at the end of this blogpost.  A box will appear where you can type in your response.

Write a response in which you share about what organization (or movement)  you support, what communities you work within and support, the work you do, the impact you are trying to make, and contact information for more details.  Whether in your home or across the world, whether large or small scale, telling what you do MATTERS.  Amplifying your contributions to the audience hear helps us learn and grow.

Finally, please also support Bronze Magazine by purchasing a print or digital copy of the anniversary issue.  The founder and editor-in-chief, Shawn Chavis, created the magazine to invigorate and affirm fellow women and their work.  It is replete with information, insight, and inspiration. The site is  http://bit.ly/vtX9U6.

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[11] “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” is a documentary profiling Ms. Gbowee and the work of several women to bring peace to Liberia. http://praythedevilbacktohell.com/