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Thursday, December 10, 2015

If You're Black...

If you're white, you're all right.
If you're brown, hang around.
If you're black, jump back.
--children's rhyme

If you are unprepared to encounter interpretations that you might find objectionable, please do not proceed further. --Harvard University Implicit Bias Test Introduction

I was a tornado of a little girl.  I had lots of energy and imagination.  I made up songs and dramas and acted them out --by myself if no one was around or wanted to play with me.

I loved the social life of elementary school and the intellectual challenge.  I can't remember not knowing how to read. I loved nap time in kindergarden.  I loved cookies for jobs completed in first grade.  I loved my second grade teacher's turban and long arm of bracelets.  She was light brown and bought me a notebook.

I did not like being Black.  I did not like my dark brown skin color.  I did not like the jokes, the criticisms, and the presumption that I was not pretty because I was "dark-skinned."

"Don't turn off the lights; we'll never find Amanda!" would always get a laugh.

I wasn't good at put-downs so I would smile and pretend I did not care.  I felt guilty as charged.  I was Black.  I didn't know of any insults for being brown, tan, yellow, coffee colored, etc.  

I grew up in the 1970s in a predominantly Black neighborhood with a sizable Puerto Rican and Latino population.  It was still an insult to call someone "black."  I remember someone saying: "I'm not Black; I'm brown."

Yes, this was the time of James Brown's "Say it Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud," but it was also the time of only lighter-skinned women being featured as Jet Magazine's Beauty of the Week.  

All of the new Black television shows and movies of the 1970s featured women who were lighter skinned --unless they were playing asexual, mammy characters.  Think  "Julia" or even "Raisin in the Sun."  

To comfort me, my foster mother would say "Don't you worry, baby; you're getting lighter every day."  I was the only dark brown girl in the family.  I hoped she was right because the only other dark brown person in the house was my foster brother, a teen who was always in trouble.

Eventually, I started fighting back.  In junior high, a group of boys would pick a girl they thought was ugly and scream at her in the hallway while we changed classes.  I'd watched them do it to several girls--all dark brown.  I was in the smart class.  I had glasses.  I had crooked teeth.  And, most importantly I was Black.

When they screamed at me, I just kept walking as if I didn't see them.  I don't know if my friends were with me, but I felt alone.

One of the boys stepped in front of me and said something, and I opened my mouth:
"You're no dreamboat yourself" came out.

I kept walking.

All of his friends laughed.  They were shocked an "ugly girl" had hit back.  They were shocked at my word choice.  I know because they said so.

Later, when I was in my final year of junior high, a boy shouted as I passed by "you look like an African queen."

Now in my neighborhood, even if we had mostly gotten to the point of not denying we were black, we were emphatically NOT African.  Notwithstanding the Black nationalists, the Nation of Islam, and other folks countering the narrative of Africa as a dark continent, most people in my world did not respect, value or claim any connection to Africa.

Therefore when he put 'African" in front of queen; I heard it as mockery.  

My response:  "That's the best kind."

I tell you these stories because I've battled to see my skin color as sensual, rich, and one of my best features.  I have fought despair and loneliness when I was passed over because I was too dark.  When I read about dark brown women characters choosing navy and brown clothes so as not to draw attention to our skin, and I went out and bought yellows, reds, pinks, and white.  

After I graduated from college, I was approached by my friend Luis, a light-skinned Mexican American.  I tried to explain my hesitance to date him.  I liked him.  A lot.   He was really cute and artistic.  But, I said, very gently "I'm really Black."  I'll never forget his reaction.  He literally fell down on the hiking trail in laughter.  I tried again:   I am not a "by the way" Black person.  (I love this story and promise to write another post about what happened after that.)

I am now almost fifty.  Studies show that colorism and white supremacy persist, but I resist.  I have degrees and certifications in African & Afro-American Studies and African Studies.  I've taught Africana Studies, classes on whiteness, and  post-colonialism.  I've lived on the Continent, organized Black students, represented Black community interests, and organized in support of African liberation movements.  I've built an identity around actively fighting for Black Art, Black complexity, Black traditions, Black intellectual history.

Therefore, I approached Harvard's implicit bias test with high awareness of color preference in our society.  I chose the Skin-Tone Implicit Bias Test without a lot of forethought.  Ten minutes later I got my results.  I had a moderate "preference for light-skin relative to dark-skin."  Despair.

I had battled and lost.  My unconscious, the realm out of my control, had learned "If you black, jump back."

I did not like my results.  Yes, I had grown up in a white supremacist society.  Yes, I'd gotten messages my entire life, all around me every day that light is better than dark; white is better than black; etc.  

It's understandable, but still, I do not like my results.

Immediately questions rise:
My children: one brown, one tan.  Do I prefer the tan child?
My stepchildren: two blondes, one brunette.  Do I prefer the blondes?
My husband: blue green eyes, grey-white hair, white skin.  Do I prefer white men?

I do not like these questions.  

If you're white, you're all right.
If you're brown, hang around.
If you're black, jump back.

But I sit with them.

I commit again to find and declare the Good, Beautiful, Powerful, Smart, and Lovely in Blackness, in dark-brown people.  

I challenge you.  I invite you.  Take at least one action every day for a week to counter the implicit bias to favor light-skinned or degrade dark-skinned people.  At the end of the week, join me for a conference call to share what you experienced.  If you can't make the call, write something somewhere.  Here's a study with some suggested actions. Email me for the conference call details.

Peace and love,

Sunday, November 29, 2015

I'm Giving on Tuesday: Theatre for Transformation

Anger and Despair.

Police killings, terrorists attacks, and the sheer disregard for the sanctity of life have me ping ponging between these two feelings. 

Most art does not address the profound injustice and racism that permeate our society and even our movements to make things better.  

But art has the power to make the invisible visible.  

After taking some time off, I've returned as the lead artist and Vice Chair of the Board of Directors of Theatre for Transformation.

Please join me in making a tax deductible donation to TFT.  We are launching a campaign to raise $15,000 by midnight on Dec. 1, Giving Tuesday.  

Honoring and drawing upon the wisdom and sacred energy of African American culture, Theatre for Transformation creates performances for all people.

TFT was born while I was on spiritual retreat at Pendle Hill in 2008. 

We incorporated in 2010 and were awarded our tax exempt status by the IRS in 2011.  Like many small organizations we grew quickly and then floundered when we tried to mimic larger arts organizations. 

Five years and several grants later, we are clear that we exist to produce meaningful art that compensates artists well with the minimum amount of organizational structure required to manage our treasure and relationships.

We are raising $15,000 to:
  • Pay artist commissions
  • Pay for travel, accommodation and meals of artists during rehearsals
  • Pay for administrative, bookkeeping, and other operations costs
  • Pay for insurances, tax filings, and legal expenses

Honoraria from presenters pay artists but do not include enough to pay for the development and administrative costs that allow us to get creative work on stage.

If you like what we do in schools, faith communities, colleges and community settings, please show us some love.  Give now.  

Peace and love!
Vice Chair of the Board and Founder

P.P.S.--If you'd rather send a check, please make it payable to Theatre for Transformation and mail to 342 N. Queen St. Lancaster, PA 17601.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Walking While Black

This morning after my usual high protein breakfast of black beans, salmon, salad and a bite of eggs, I set out on my 15 minute brisk walk.  (I started this routine after hearing Tim Ferris author of The 4 Hour Body.)

I don't like to be cold--except when I'm heat flashing-so I added a mid-thigh black suede coat to my ensemble.

I start walking.  I see a white family of three or four kids and two adults playing while waiting for the school bus.

Immediately, I feel weird.  I feel like a threat. I am Black, dark brown complected.  I have dread locks.   I am wearing a black coat that could conceal something bad.

This is not my neighborhood, not my state and not my home.  I am an outsider.  I am in a middle class neighborhood in Hamden, Ct.

No one in the family speaks and I keep my eyes forward so as not to offend or be offended.  I feel fear.

It is 8:25am.  I worry that someone will call the police about a suspicious Black woman walking.

As I walk, I wish I had chosen my lime green sweater.  It's cute and it seems to increase my innocence.

Black is dangerous.  It hides things.  I'm dangerous.  I could be hiding something.

These are the automatic thoughts that I notice myself thinking only after I pass another collection of white adults and children waiting for the school bus.  As I pass this group, a woman smiles and says "Good morning."  I respond "Good morning" and smile back.  A little.  I keep walking.

Going down a steep hill,  I realize I've internalized all of these messages about Black people, about myself as a threat.  I pick up speed.  There's nothing wrong with me, I insist, still worried about my black mid-thigh suede coat that a white friend had given to me.  You're going to be okay, I tell myself.  I search for a hair band to tie up my dreads.  No luck.

As I turn around to ascend the hill, I open the coat.  There, nobody will think I'm hiding a weapon.  I'm wearing a pink fitted sweater and olive cardigan underneath my jacket.  I am innocently female. (I know, #SayHerName, but I'm just doing what I can.)

As I huff and puff my way to the top of the hill, I feel a little relieved that all the families are gone. I don't feel like a threat.

I practice what I will say to the police:  I'm visiting my friend ________and her address is... I'm proud that I remember her address.  

I worry about my son, about black boys and men who walk outside their neighborhoods.   Threatening.  Suspicious.  (Trayvon Martin sits in the back of my consciousness.)  I worry that they don't have female innocence to draw on.  A cute lime green sweater or a fitted pink top to cue the outside world that they are not a threat.  (Of course that did not save Sandra Bland.)

I am facing traffic.  Cars come at me.  There's no sidewalk here.  People who walk are unexpected. Will the dark coat could hide me from a careless, momentarily distracted driver?

I arrive home.

I go to the guest bedroom.

I meditate.

I write.

This is what it's like to "Walk while Black."

Peace and love,

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Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Heaven or Hell?

I haven’t believed in a location called hell since I encountered my first atheist at age fourteen.  She was an effervescent French girl who wore loads of make up and used Evian to cool herself down when she got too excited.  I grew to love, Elsa, but was anxious for her soul when she announced there was no God.  That she did not get struck down immediately shocked me almost as much as her pronouncement.

Since then, I’ve lived with Hell as a state of Separation.

Better said:  Hell is other people. 

Hell is:
People who cut you off in traffic.
Police you can’t trust.
Your children.
People who don’t hold the door for you.
Your boss.
Your direct report.
Your kid’s teacher
The person in front of you at the check-out
etc. etc

"Other people" are everywhere. 

I love this quote because it points to the inevitable suffering when we see ourselves as separate from "other people."

At any given moment we can choose hell, separating ourselves from “others” who harm us or those we love.  We can make “other people” the problem, the threat, the only thing separating us from contentment. 

It makes sense.  People do crappy things to each other.  Systems encourage individuals to separate and harm each other.  It makes sense to fight back.  

It makes sense to accept the Us vs. Them equation especially when the other side clearly sees me as a “them” to exterminate. 

And, yet I’ve got this thread, an unbreakable thin line connected to my heart that says: We can’t win this game. 

If the solution is only more separation, then we keep losing.

Brother Martin famously said “an eye for an eye leaves us all blind.”  

Albert Einstein warned "The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our minds..."

My sponsor used to say "Do you want to be right or happy?"  

Whenever you get pulled in to condemning others, into hell, start to look towards another consciousness.  Here are some possibilities:

If you're ready for a little taste of heaven, practice one of these methods or your own first and then take action. 

Let Oneness ground your actions. Let me know how it goes!

Peace and Love!

Thursday, October 29, 2015

#SayHerName, Inspira and Art as Ceremony

I'm writing just after spending a week as Friend-in-Residence at Haverford College.  It was a huge week of meeting professors, speaking with students at Quaker House, leading workshops, sharing meals and teaching classes.  You might expect this as a Friend-in-Residence.  What was unexpected was the end of the week performance-ceremony.  #SayHerName

Michael and I performing Assata Shakur's poem "Affirmation" to Bach's Chaconne and Lift Every Voice and Sing

Quaker Affairs asked me to share so that folks might get a taste of me as a performer.  As I was preparing, I realized I really wanted to experiment with ceremony.  Could we effectively use ritual and performance to make ourselves and the community more whole?  

YES!  Together we created  #SayHerName, part-performance, part-ritual to make visible the killing of Black women by police and while in police custody.

We began by acknowledging that which we hold divine and our ancestors.  People shared names of about a dozen ancestors, and we could have gone on, but I drew it to a close so that we could continue.  

I used elements from Ricardo Levins Morales, and we acknowledged the oppressive power relationships and ideologies in the room.  "Patriarchy we recognize you and we do NOT submit to you.  White supremacy we recognize you and we do NOT submit to you."  

We also called in what we wanted to assist us in the space.  "Courage we honor you and we welcome you.  Hope, we honor you and we welcome you." It was such a relief to know that crappy ideologies are present but we can choose not to submit to them.  Similarly, it felt good to call in the values that strengthen us.

I then shared film clips of monologues written about real women who had endured slavery.  This was from To Cross an Ocean Four Centuries Long. We listened to their stories.

Things got really tense when we watched a slide show of women recently killed by the police or while in custody. Michael Jamanis and Francis Wong from the  INSPIRA:  THE POWER OF THE SPIRITUAL ensemble improvised beautiful music that morphed into a fiery jazz explosion when Matthew Armstead sang "No justice, no peace." and Gerri McCritty brought in the dun-dun drums.

Afterward people stayed to share their heart, their commitment to take action and their appreciation.  A prospective freshman, a young Black woman, stayed a long time to tell me that she'd never experienced anything like that and was inspired to follow her calling.  

I share this because this is why I continue working as an artist.  I am being used to reach people and get to the heart of the matter.

Some of us do policy research and advocacy.  Some of us organize marches and die-in's other direct action.  Some of us pray and meditate and send energy to all of the folks on the frontlines.  This is all important and good.
My work is to feed people's spirits and remind them that we are all One even when systemic oppression separates and dehumanizes us.  

I invite you to co-create art as ceremony, art as social change.  We will perform INSPIRA: THE POWER OF THE SPIRITUAL at Lancaster Catholic High School on Jan. 18, 2016.  Please come and/or contribute to support the artists.  The show is FREE!

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Leaning in

What do you do when somebody says something classic like:  “This country is so focused on racism that we’re forgetting about everybody else”?

As a diversity and justice consultant, I encounter some version of this all the time.  Sometimes it will pop up in a one on one conversation in my personal life.  I’m going to address it in this blog because I want to highlight a strategy that artist Ricardo Levins Morales suggested in the Deeper Change Forum a few weeks ago.  Ricardo urged us to seek the common ground of values even when we disagree with each others’ narratives.

Recently, I heard a European American who felt worn out by the constant scramble to earn a living get impatient with charges of racism.  It’s almost like he/she said “Hey, my life is sucking right now too, but I don’t get to point at the easy bogeyman racism.  I just have to keep working harder, and nobody cares.”

Typically, I walk away from someone who takes that position because I feel disregarded, dismissed and just plain “dissed.”  Even now I notice that my belly feels tight and my breathing got shallow just writing and imagining scenarios where this has played out.  Walking away is a legit option, especially when you are on Facebook.

When I feel vulnerable or angry, I’m not in the head space to look for the shared values.  So, I typically remove myself.  However, when this happened recently,  I leaned in, breathed a little deeper and asked questions.  Here is the flavor of the questions that I posed.  I did not do this perfectly so I comment on each question as to its effectiveness.

Can both be true?  Can there be racism and your life be really frustrating because you’re on a grind where things just aren’t getting better?
This is a great question if the person isn’t in too much pain.  I asked it out of my frustration.  May or may not be a great first question.

What’s frustrating you about your job?
This is a great question because it’s better to get right to the cause of the person’s pain.  The real issue is not whether or not African Americans have it better than European Americans.  The person’s real issue is: I’m scared, frustrated, and tired, and I feel alone in carrying all this.  Somebody please care about me.  This is where I can find the shared value:  You and I are both a child of God and worthy of a great life, as are our children.  I’m on your side too.  We’re on the same side.

Can I share what it’s like for me?
This is the part I downplayed a bit too much.  However, it’s progress for me that I risked to share any of what I was feeling and noticing.  Sometimes I go into social worker mode and make it all about you to avoid being vulnerable.  In this case I validated that racism hurts and isolates.

What’s your heart saying right now?  What’s my heart saying right now?
Let’s take care of each others’ hearts.  The quickest way to shift the mind (which is built for separation and defense) is to go straight to the heart.  Asking what the heart is saying rather than how do you feel could help to navigate around the ego.

Our conversation could have easily ended with a stalemate and separation.  Instead we traveled toward each other because the questions were not aiming to disprove the person’s narrative about racism.  Rather, I went to fundamental shared experience of frustration and inadequacy.  The conversation went the way of shared values:  I care about you and want to know what’s hard for you right now.  Your feelings are important to me.  I share my feelings with you.

Finally, as I said before, when we engage is a choice.  If you’re heart needs comfort, then you may not have the space to meet someone where they are.  Don’t sacrifice yourself.  Instead nurture yourself.  Meditate.  Take a bath.  Get a hug from a trusted someone—like your dog.  You will get another chance to engage someone who makes that kind of comment—sooner or later.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

When You Lose your Power

Take Your Medicine!

Have you ever been somewhere and just had to write down what someone said so that you could look at it again later?

Last week I kept writing as I listened to self-described "political artist" and long-time organizer Ricardo Levins Morales speak at the Deeper Change Forum in New Haven, CT.  Ricardo spoke about trauma, the power of stories to divide, and applying the wisdom of farming and nature as applied to social movements.

In a series of blogs, I'm going to share what I heard and the truth that it points toward in my life.

Trauma & Self-Medication
Ricardo spoke of trauma, at its essence, as a loss of power; someone or something taking away your ability to protect or act.   Having experienced this loss, we instinctively self-medicate.  We do something to remove ourselves from the shame, pain, etc.  The medicine may strengthen or poison us.

Almost simultaneously I thought of the group and individual levels in which this plays out.
For African Americans, the trauma of slavery, jim crow, segregation, and second class citizenship is enforced by state violence, lynch mobs, and individuals such as George Zimmerman.  The threat is always there.  As a group we tend to experience police killing of black men and women, boys and girls as a stripping of our power.  We experience today's Confederate flag as a reminder of our severe loss of power as humans under slavery.  We are frequently re-traumatized on social media.  Not surprisingly, we collectively and individually create medicine/poison to numb the pain and/or to restore our power.

I see the Black Lives Matter movement as an example of medicine.  Instead of internalizing the shame, people left their individual homes and took to communal spaces such as the streets, court houses, hospitals, schools, shopping malls, etc. to say no more shame on us, it's shame on you.  Moreover, we exercised power as a group to demand the Attorney General, the President, the Prosecutors, the mayors, etc. take action to protect and nurture Black life.  These demonstrations of power were often angry and fierce and led by younger generations.

I also see art created by groups such as Tribe One and my own Inspira: The Power of the Spiritual as medicine.   I went to a Tribe One concert last November soon after the failure to indict the officers who killed Eric Garner.

Tribe sang songs of hope and grief and then created a song with the audience about what they were feeling and knowing.  Using phrases like "No justice, no peace," "I can't breathe" and "truth and reconciliation."

Similarly, as part of Inspira, Matthew Armstead and I shared journal entries written during the Ferguson uprising and used chants from protests to build a soundscape along with our musical improvisation.

These performances provided space for us to feel our anger, grief, despair, and remember our power to do good.  They resonated with audiences deeply because people already know they can affect reality but, as Ricardo says, "we've been brutalized into forgetting."

Ricardo's words also made me think of my individual trauma: childhood neglect and sexual abuse.  As a child I coped with the loss of power by escaping into novels.  I read anything we had in the house for hour.  I also developed a highly self-critical voice as I strove to be "good."  Feeling unsafe, I couldn't sleep at night. I denied sadness and anger and put on a "happy face."   These strategies were somewhat helpful AND detrimental, my poison and my medicine.  Today, when the trauma gets triggered I automatically go back to these standbys.

Thankfully, I've also developed some new ways to remember my power to protect and befriend myself.  For example, I drink a lot of hot water.  In fact, I take a hot bath.  I write out my feelings.  I share with a trusted friend.  And, thanks to the 30 Day Meditation Challenge, I now meditate as a way to reboot.  However, I'm not to proud to say that I take myself to a professional and cry it all out when the Big Feelings get triggered and I feel destabilized.  Like the artist and the change maker, a counselor can render the invisible visible and accompany you back to your core.

Here's a challenge this week:  Notice when you feel as if your power has been stripped away from you.  What triggered you?  What do you do to protect and strengthen yourself?  Any poisons?

Please let me know via email, below or on Facebook.

Thank you for reading On a Mission to Heal the Planet.  Our mission is to nurture and expand the Tribe of the Heart, individuals who stand for Oneness and Take Action to heal the world, their families, and themselves.   Stay in touch! Peace and Love, Amanda