Now this step is a little tricky. I want you to step outside your bubble and go towards a culture or demographic that you have some anxiety or discomfort. Do this respectfully by supporting or participating in something that is public. For example, visit a church that says all are welcome. Check out a mosque or a temple and confirm that your participation would be welcome. Maybe walk into a bookstore or art gallery that focuses on people of color. If you can't do the actual visit today, then set up an appointment. Artists almost always welcome support from diverse audiences.
When Franklin and Marshall College asked me to address the entire college join at their common hour I was terrified. Seriously, every time I thought about it I would get sick to my stomach. After I said yes, I avoided emails about the engagement. This started to shift one week before the event when I moved from terrified to merely scared. It helped when my husband Michael agreed to accompany me. But the biggest shift came when I heard a speaker the day before I gave my presentation. Theater artist and teacher Nilaja Sun Gordon concluded her remarks by having each person put their hands on their chest and repeat silently “I belong. I belong here.” Then she invited us to say it to the person sitting next to us.
That is when I saw once again how the default experience for me in predominantly white elite spaces is to feel like I don’t belong, to feel like I don’t belong here. It’s ironic that the piece Michael and I had decided to perform is called walking while black because it points to feeling like I don’t belong while walking on the street in a predominately white neighborhood in Connecticut. In that piece I say I feel fear.
I’m grateful to Nilaja Sun Gordon for reminding me that I belong, that I belong here.
Now I’m sharing that message with you. Below please check out the video of our presentation. You’ll see that Michael and I use art to create belonging, common vision, and connection with the divine.
We belong here.
(please fast forward to minute 10 to view performance or click here)
I just got off the phone with an amazing African American woman leader. She is in the style of Black women who keep the movement going. The reliable worker bee who always picks up the phone. You know, the women who type up the agenda, set up the registration, clean up, bring food, help transport people to the event, etc. They are amazing.
We couldn't do (fill in the blank) without them.
If you need something done, call this woman because she never says no, and she will actually get it done.
We love this woman.
But what's the cost of being this woman?
What are the secret feelings behind the "yes"?
Having flirted in and out of this role and talked with heroic and tired Black women, here's what I hear.
"I feel taken advantage of."
"I can't say no."
"I was taught that if you had something to give, you gave--no matter what."
"It's easier to just do it (all) myself."
"I feel good when I'm needed."
"I can't sit still."
"I feel guilty if I say no or do something for myself."
I want to focus on this last item.
In racial justice work we hear a lot about white guilt, but when do we address black guilt?
My question is: What do we have to feel guilty about?
So many in our community get crushed by systemic racism and poverty that those of us still standing and somewhat whole feel survivor's guilt. When I think about the brilliant Black boys in my elementary school gifted class, I get sick to my stomach. None of them got channeled into the special programs and opportunities that I experienced in junior high and high school. If I look closely at my family, I see how the systemic pumping of drugs and alcohol and the lack of other services created addiction and breakdowns that took beautiful talented people decades to sort through. Some didn't make it through. So, like the Sister on the phone today, I know that 'but for the grace of God, there go I."
But the problem with this guilt is that I can never "earn" my way to peace. I can do, do, do and still not do enough because people are dying and suffering. My people. My family.
The problem with guilt is that it cannot be assuaged. If I need to stop police brutality, the school to prison pipeline, the rape of the planet, etc before I have the right to pleasure, abundance, peace of mind and liberation, then I am stuck.
Peep this: By thinking I have to "earn" beauty, abundance or liberation, I have conceded to White Supremacy and White Christianity that I am Bad. White supremacy says that Blackness is inherently bad, unworthy, inadequate. White Christianity dictates that I can work to overcome the unworthiness, but I can never quite get there. Remember, not too long ago Christians (including converted Africans) saw themselves in a battle to attain a "white heart." Even Eubie Blake's song "Black and Blue" laments having to work hard so that the white world can see his inner whiteness.
As Fannie Lou Hamer would say--I question America!
What if pleasure, abundance, and peace of mind are our birthright?
What if we don't have to apologize for taking time to experience these things?
It's very hard to share this because in some ways I'm questioning the whole way that we've been taught Christianity. But is it surprising that this is so since Christianity and enslavement went hand in hand in the U.S.? Haven't elites used Christianity or Catholicism to subdue, create psychological anxiety and neediness amongst the very people they want to exploit, steal from and enslave?
But what if we don't have to "earn" anything? What if "earning" health, shelter, food, and belonging is a lie to keep people off balance and disconnected from the truth of the abundance this planet offers?
What if this is a set up?
What if this constant overwhelm from doing; fretting about saying no; judging folks who invest in their well being; is actually keeping the interlocking systems of oppression going?
To the same Sisters, the Girl Fridays, the movement stalwarts --let me ask you this:
Does your lack of self-care or your inability to say no harm the very people you want to serve?
Does your willingness to "just do it all myself" prevent you from teaching or empowering others?
Does your need to "earn" your goodness or avoid the crushing guilt, have you in co-dependent dysfunctional relationships or organizations?
Does your resentment at having to do it all or at being taken advantage of cause friction, negativity, or avoidance in your committee, family, etc.?
I challenge you, I challenge myself, to claim our birthright and to live generously--giving and receiving!
Peace and love,
P.S.--I'm offering a VIP Day for Women of Color Leaders. Email me at email@example.com to learn more!
I just got back from vacation a few days ago and I wanted to share two non-fiction books that I’m currently reading.
(Okay, let’s be real, I’m currently reading three books, one of which is a paperback thriller--but I’m only gonna share about one in this email. I’ll share about non-fiction number two next week.)
This was recommended months and months ago, but I must admit I’m finicky about my books. I don’t like to read what other people say I should read. (This might be a deeper problem.) I also don’t like to read non-fiction solo. Maybe it’s a grad school thing. Maybe it’s too much extrovertism, but I like to read books about serious topics such as racial justice and societal change with other folks so that I don’t feel too bad. These other people also help me to keep reading btw. Anyhoo--I finally got started on this book when I heard about it for the 3rd or 4th time and also heard about a facebook group of activists who were also reading it.
Too bad I waited so long! This book has lots of pearls, nuggets, and pithy ah-ha’s about making change. And it’s written in the “I” voice so that I feel like I’m getting to know the young Black woman who wrote it. Adrienne maree brown speaks from her lived experience as an organizer, facilitator and avid reader of Octavia Butler. Okay, what else do we have in common? And, she says thing that I’ve held as true and stuff that I need to seriously test out in my own life.
For example, brown asks “Is it possible we will call each other out until there’s no one left beside us?” This question refers to the the rush to take each other down; to call out folks who are change making imperfectly and maybe hypocritically--in such a way that we destroy them. Instead she advocates for transformative justice which happens in real time rather than the super urgency of social media time. She asks us to consider talking to those we have access to rather than public shaming.
This resonates with me deeply. I’ve never felt comfortable with the massive attack waves on social media, and I even declined to speak at a rally when I felt like I didn’t have enough information on an injustice. I’ve seen organizations where the “gotcha” culture has everybody tense and afraid to make a mistake. Like brown, I think there’s a time when calling out is the only option, but I want us to slow down enough to consider the question rather than just react.
Here’s another real life example. About a year ago I met with a non-profit leaders whose mission included racial justice. I held them to account about several actions their organization had taken that struck me as out of alignment with their stated mission. It was not a warm and fuzzy conversation. I did a lot of holding space for transformation and pausing as I spoke and as I listened. The leader did a lot of defending. Some superficial apologizing. And she made one concrete commitment to change something. After I hung up, I didn’t feel super successful, but I felt I had done my job to hold them to account. Recently, we spoke again and I found out that the conversation led to some major shifts in the leader and in the organization. I could have posted on social media and ridden that wave, but I actually have two principles that stopped me:
Resolve conflicts with allies, e.g. the 99%, with care. Just like me, they are evolving and ultimately, we need each other. Mao called this “contradictions among the people.”
Plant the seeds that I want to see flower. Hatred creates a powerful field that I’m not interested in living in.
So, I was right there with brown. But then she said a few things that I don’t already practice, and about which I have core beliefs that are exact opposite. For example, “What is easy is sustainable. Birds coast when they can.” I’ve lived five decades working hard. Okay maybe only four, but still, what is easy to me feels suspect. Some part of my mind believes that I might die if I don’t work hard or at least think hard about what to do next.
Yet, I’m willing to give this a shot because I know that this system thrives on people believing that should be doing more. Maybe it’s the Protestant Work Ethic which condemned joy and linked hard work to godliness. Maybe it’s that I was trained by some hard working Black Women.
I have to admit I felt uncomfortable writing the word vacation. It’s such a class privilege to stop working and leave town. It feels “easy.” But if I want to sustain my being and increase my capacity to impact the planet, rest is required.
Birds coast when they can. Hold others to account directly not on social media — and check your intentions.
There’s sooooo much more in this book— which I’m still reading! However, I know that we will explore these ideas experientially in my upcoming retreat.
So this week I’m on the look out for ways to coast, to get there with ease rather than effort. (Wow, that sounds sacrilegious! Y’all pray for me. I’ve got a lot to learn!
Peace and love,
I’m on a spiritual retreat for the summer solstice led by two wise African America women and I feel blessed!!! We are in the bosom of our mother in Mississippi, allowing ourselves to grieve, set new intentions and transmute our fears and distractions. Please hold me and our group in prayer/heart!
This week I want to remind you to love on yourself.
I’ve got two minute long meditation videos that build your capacity to love you EXACTLY as you are.
Do these once a day for a week and watch your life bloom!
Peace and love!
Self-Compassion Minute via I Love You
Starbucks held their one day anti-bias training last week.
I offered them a few tips on how to use this moment to do some systemic work but ... you know how that goes! Not to be deterred, I offered my own racial bias training in my community. Two coffee shops came on as sponsors and we brought more people into the conversation.
Here are a couple of takeaways:
1. We can't talk about bias without first placing it in the context of racism and the systemic degrading of blackness and uplifting of whiteness.
2. Racial bias shows up in what we don't see as well as what we do see.
3. You can always do more to stop racial bias and anti-Blackness
4. AND most folks will need support to sustain this awareness and strategies to undo it in their organizations, schools, and faith communities.
5. I want to teach something like the Roots of Anti-Blackness in You
I'll say a bit more about each below.
Put bias in the context of white supremacy and systemic racism
Have you ever done any online anti-bias training? I have. I was shocked at how the training removed "isms" from the conversation. So the phrases "who looks like you" or "who thinks like you" were common but there was no mention of historical anti-blackness. No mention of why Anglo men are considered the norm into which all others have to be especially "welcomed" or "included."
Of course the challenge is, where do you begin? My friend Lisa Graustein put together a slideshow that documents legal institutionalized white supremacy/privilege since the arrival of Europeans in the 1600s. You could read it, but I recommend you experience it with other people. When we get this context we are able to see white supremacy is not the shark. It's the water.
Racial bias is most powerful in what we DON'T see.
So, I know you all are able to spot stereotypical crap easily. But what emerges in a group is was how the absence of people of color in powerful positions implicitly reinforces white supremacy. A group of school and family administrators explored the harm it causes Black and Latino kids to not experience teachers from their backgrounds. Some of the Christians brought up the whiteness of their wall hangings--which prompted a discussion of "What color is your Jesus?"
You can always do more.
You have power and responsibility to monitor what is on your phone, your wall and your playlist. After the workshop, I looked at my home. I'm not really into design and I have no wall hangings in my office, but I realized that I had been subtly accommodating a white bias. All of the edgy Black art was in my bedroom or my studio, but not in shared or public spaces. I have a black and white photograph by Arvia Walker that features two Black women with their fists up and wearing Black Lives Matter t-shirts. One is crying. It is powerful and heart wrenching. I want to cry just looking at it. It is uncomfortable. I had been keeping it close, at least in part, because I was afraid of causing conflict in my interracial home. But after some disagreement, Michael and I have put it in a very public space. The conflict got even juicier when Michael brought it up publicly in conversation about race a few days later. With his permission, we'll post a short video about that experience soon!
You need support.
Most folks need outside help to transform their workplaces or faith communities.
Why? People in your own community often minimize what you say. You might have great lived experience but not be an expert. It's tiring to be the lone dogged voice. You need a team of people who are breaking down the resistance, planting seeds of knowledge and helping to hold the community as it goes through change. Building the capacity of the team to raise awareness, lead campaigns, and practice being the change they want to see in the world does not happen by chance. It must be done intentionally
My next Racial Bias Awareness Training is going to be on July 17th in Lancaster, PA. Here is a link to register.
Peace and love,
Last week I promised to share with you how to tend to yourself. Below are 3 suggestions that can take 3 to 20 minutes. Let me know your favorites!
Here are some suggestions:
1. Read. I recommend literature that takes you out of our difficult stressful world but that stretches your imagination. Check out my video book review of Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness. Maybe making a short video review is even more restorative than reading the book?
2. Move. I move the body in ways that feel GOOD. Some of us like to feel a burn. Some of us like slow easy stretching. Some like fast movement. Do what feels good EVERY day--especially when you don't feel like it! Dance along with me to our new music video Make America Great not the Land of Hate! It's only 3 minutes.
3. Rest. I do a 20 minute body scan when I feel tired and I need to reboot my energy. You can do this outside on the groundor inside an office. My mind is so addicted to movement and thought that I need someone to guide me through a scan. I'm going to record my own soon but google one in the meantime!
Some of you are probably thinking of all the reasons why none of these will work for you. Let me say this: You are the instrument of transformation. You can't be faithful or powerful or irresistible if your system is chronically stressed, overwhelmed, irritable or saddened by neglect.
Tend to yourself. We need you!
Peace and love,
P.S.--I'm offering my free master class "How to Have a Difficult Conversation about Racism without Losing your Voice or Your Cool on May 23. Join us.
I just got back home from performing a healing ritual in at UC Irvine. Before that I led a retreat with my racial justice from the H.E.A.R.T. Mastery group.
In both spaces I was confronted with feeling. Feeling sad. Feeling angry. And resisting.
I don't know about you, but lots of us are afraid to feel our feelings for fear of hurting other people or property. Secretly, I think we're also afraid of not surviving the unpleasant physical sensations of anger and sadness. It also doesn't help that one of the rules of white supremacy culture is to pretend you don't have feelings or to condemn anyone who shows feelings as "unprofessionll" or "weak."
Here's what I know: You cannot heal what you won't feel. What you resist persists.
I did not make up these statements, but I've been watching my life and they've turned out to be true.
But how do I feel? Especially buried stuff. And how do I make sure I don't die in the process? Sounds dramatic, but when you put stuff off for a long time it seems to grow. It's like the boogey man.
That's where the experiment comes in. I've heard from numerous spiritual teachers that if you allow yourself to feel something difficult for 90 seconds, you can process it out of your body. The trick is to not keep adding thoughts or story to the sensations as they pass through you.
So, here's what I did.
I watched a 1 minute video on Facebook of a Black young man being physically dominated and thrown down to the ground by a group of white police officers. (I had put off watching this because I hate the feelings that rise when I see this kind of thing.)
I did not move to distract myself from the feelings. I did not forward it to others.
I set my timer for 90 seconds and breathed. I let the tears come. I rocked on the anonymous hotel bed. I let the sounds come from my throat. I closed the screen door so no one would check on me.
After the timer went off I breathed some more and determined to be kind to myself. Then I held space for transformation for 90 seconds. Then I prayed.
I waited 24 hours and then shared it because the young man asked that it be shared.
This took about five minutes.
Here's what I gained:
1. I'm not afraid to open that message now. I've seen it and am not avoiding it.
2. I did not die.
Rage and grief are not too low below the surface, but we're afraid of how much it will hurt us to feel them so we ignore or tamp down.
The problem with that is it takes energy to tamp it down. It holds the rage and grief in place. And then we find ourselves reacting rather than rolling. We yell at our kids, our spouse, our boss because the hurt has not been tended.
More on tending next week... I promise!
Peace and love,
P.S.--Mother's Day Sale on my digital art is still on! $1 for spoken word, music and poetry downloads.
I feel sorry for Starbucks. Sort of.
The racism and unconscious bias at play in the recent situation where two black entrepreneurs were arrested while waiting for their business associate is not limited to Starbucks. It’s not limited to the police. It is pervasive and endemic to American society. You see it in the disproportionate number of Black children arrested at school; of Black girls suspended for subjective reasons such as attitude. You see it in disparate health outcomes and treatments. Racial discrimination abounds in housing purchases and rentals. It’s way beyond Starbucks.
However, it is Starbucks’s responsibility to deliver on their mission as published in 2015: “Creating a culture of warmth and belonging, where everyone is welcome. Acting with courage, challenging the status quo and finding new ways to grow our company and each other.” The problem is to deliver on this promise to people of color, Starbucks must actively promote anti-racism.
Here’s the challenge to all of us: If your business does not actively promote racial equity and inclusion, it will passively promote racism and bias. And, eventually, you will come up short or find that your racist slip is showing.
I like Starbucks’ decision to close every store in May to train every single employee in unconscious bias. It’s a start. But, it’s not enough.
Here’s my two cents. Whether you are a huge retailer or a solo-preneur, here are 5 steps you can take to protect your brand, grow your business, and make the world a better place.
- Get clear and articulate your why: How is racial diversity/inclusion/equity vital to your business; Promote that among your employees and leaders.
- Assess: how you currently serve people of color; how you build capacity among your staff owners to understand and implement inclusive practices; How racially diverse and skilled your staff is in dismantling systemic racism; use focus groups, surveys or other tools to find out how people of color experience you or your business
- Shift your Company Culture: Put anti-bias procedures in place; invest in training for folks who hire employees; and ask yourself what would have to change to make your business welcoming and affirming to people of color
- Recruit a multi-racial team who will bring inclusion and systems change expertise to the job
- Retain: Cultivate leaders of color who are loyal to your business; mentor and continually expand their understanding of the wider contexts of their functions.
Recently, I led a workshop that attracted women of different racial backgrounds. It was profound as we looked at the ways in which we had incorporated a white frame of reference both as white women and as women of color.
Here's what I learned:
Women of color who work and/or live in predominantly white contexts go overboard when it comes to educating their European American peers about or protecting them from racism. I watched as Black and Latinex women shushed themselves, over-explained and completely forgot their ability to choose whether or not to have a conversation with someone who had a white frame of reference.
I say this not as an outside critic but as a person who does the same thing unless I bring my awareness to a dynamic.
Let me give you some examples from my personal experience.
I co-work at a space owned by a European American woman that serves a predominantly Caucasian group of entrepreneurs. This space often hosts events for free or low cost to community groups. The owner and I vote for the same presidential candidates and share progressive, feminist perspectives. However, in this space I was code-switching to make my Caucasian colleagues and therefore myself more comfortable. I did not notice my actions until I attended a co-working Happy Hour that just so happened to attract only handful of folks who were all people of color. With only one European American present, my tone and content and energy changed drastically but I did not notice this until a Puerto Rican woman pointed it out to me the following day. She said something like "I really got to hear your voice last night. You let us see you." When I thought about it, it wasn't just how I spoke that changed. My content changed. I spoke about my group identity as an African American, as someone who grew up urban explicitly and proudly. As a group, we talked about self-care and growing our businesses, AND we talked about race. In predominantly white settings, the norm to NOT talk about race or racial group identities is so strong, that it seems IMPOLITE to do so. Breaking a norm feels scary and could be met with punishment so many of us unconsciously steer away from ways of speaking and being that underscore racism in predominantly white groups-even when they are predominantly female too.
Here's another example, from years ago. A Latina spoke in my faith community about racism. She did so indirectly but Caucasians in my predominantly white faith community were offended and upset. I spoke in her defense but I did so from the perspective of crossing over to the European Americans. "She's not trying to make you feel guilty," I remember saying--as if they should not feel guilty. Their guilty, uncomfortable feelings became something that I took responsibility to un-do. I bent over backward to make them feel "safe." The problem is that my posture of explaining, educating and comforting them put me and the other woman on the defensive. We were doing 90% of the work in the conversation. She could've said. There's racism here. I could've said. Yes, there's racism here and instead of defending against it please do something about dismantling it. Instead we labored or as my therapist would say, we over-functioned which led to them under-functioning.
I see it in me and I see it in my whispering, code-switching sisters. Is it no wonder then, that so many of us are exhausted, aggrieved and frustrated?
To me, the answer is two fold: One, stop doing other people's work. Two, make conscious choices about how long and how to be in conversation with people coming from a white frame of reference. What we have is gold. Drop a little. If others pick it up fine. If not, move on. Cultivate kindness, self-compassion, creativity and forgiveness inside ourselves. From our wealth, our abundance we can choose to give. Whatever we do, it's important that we are balanced and grounded. From a position of strength, we can choose our actions. My mentor, Ricardo Levins Morales, famously said "I don't believe in speaking truth to power. I believe in speaking power to power." Women of color, we've got to be willing and able to walk away from conversations that will do us no good, and if we participate do so from our strength, our lived experience, and expertise.
Want to hear more?
Please join me at the Black and Indigenous Women of Color Master Class. It's FREE and it's happening right now! A resource for all women, Sonali writes "we pour our ancestral wisdom and traditional knowledge into you, to help counter the narrative, educate and bring an intersectional lens and a social justice perspective into the online women’s entrepreneurship spaces." Get the 411 here! (Okay did that date me?)
Peace and love,
JAZZ AS A METAPHOR: Nurturing Racial Justice via ART
This is what one generation does for the rising generation. To quote Alice Walker—Each one, pull one back into the sun!
One of the reasons I love working with Francis Wong is that he makes everyone around him sound better.
Can't wait for Friday’s We the People 14.
Let's be of service to someone today. Let's accompany someone's solo. Let's bring our heART to help somebody soar. Amen and Awomen too!
See the video for I Belong here.
I'm approaching next week with a mix of sadness and gratitude. On one hand, we get to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the 14th Amendment with our world premiere of We The People 14. On the other hand, we must also sit with the loss of a visionary change-maker who did not get to live to see his children grow up or his dream realized.
This show, We The People 14, represents both the streams of our history - the potential and promise of the Declaration of Independence and the harsh reality of the forces that oppose freedom. We deliberately chose April 4 as our opening night because I wanted to draw attention to the assassination of Dr. King. Come to Lancaster. Come to the performance. You are all welcome!
Whatever you plan to do to acknowledge the death of Dr. King, please make part of it public. Make sure you are part of community that both mourns and resolves to carry on. We are blessed to work with youth from local middle and high schools. They don't allow me to despair. Their needs are urgent and their voices loud.
Peace and love,
I’m loving this women’s history month. Thanks to the dozens of you who emailed me and shared my last blog on the tension between Black Women and White Women.
This morning I want to turn to beauty.
My friend Jamaican-Canadian novelist and pianist Maria Corley invited me to share on my life as an artist and an agent of transformation in her series Finding Beauty. In the midst of so much bad news and worry, Maria wanted to interview artists and community builders who create beauty. I recommend this series to you. I listen to podcasts when I'm driving or walking, and it feels like a super quick way to get myself back to my heart.
Finding beauty opens the heart while strengthening it. The only tattoo I have on my body is a black panther's head right in the center of my chest. It's a reminder to myself to be courageous--another heart word. Last night I saw Black Panther actress Danai Gurira accept an award from Essence Magazine. In her speech she tells the story of meeting Susan L. Taylor, former Essence editor, when she was nine years old. Susan held her face within her hands, looked her deep in the eyes, and said "You are beautiful."
Danai never forgot it and she touched back on it again and again throughout her life.
I have a similar story. When I was fourteen years old, I started attending an all girls boarding school in Westchester, NY. Although I had grown up only twenty or thirty miles away from the school in the South Bronx, I experienced extreme culture shock. I had never seen so much blond hair in my life. I felt like I was choking from so much whiteness. Sometimes I looked in the mirror and was surprised to see how dark my skin was because there were so few girls who looked like me. Well, one Sunday evening, Madeline L'Engle came to lead our chapel service. There were very few girls there for some reason. Thus, we had an intimate fireside chat with her. She spoke about flying when she was a kid. I remember after it was over she spoke with me one on one. She said, "Amanda! Amanda!" and then a bunch of words that I didn't understand including "celestial." Then she looked at me and asked "Do you know what your name means?" I shook my head no. She said, "You are loved. Beloved." It shook me and I, a kid in foster care from the Bronx, held on to it tightly and secretly for almost forty years.
Can you find beauty in a young woman or girl today? Can you really see her and take the time to affirm her out loud?
That's my challenge to you this week. Affirm a young woman or girl out loud to her face. Find that beauty!
Peace and love,
Let me first say that this topic has been brewing in me for a long time. My intention here is to air the hurt and engage in a dialogue that takes us somewhere.
When I was in grad school a good friend of mine was Caucasian. She and I lived together and had class together and supported each other through difficult times. We were close. But one day, my friend told me about an experience where the police stopped her for some minor infraction and ticketed her. She was enraged that she had been given a ticket. At first I sympathized because we were broke, but then as she went on about it I realized it was not just the money. There was something deeper going on. The police man had challenged her innocence, and this innocence was her birthright as a Caucasian middle class woman in America. She expected to be treated as Good.
Here is my contention: My Caucasian woman friend was offended that her tears, her apology, her whiteness and femaleness, did not stop the policeman from punishing her.
Here is the rub: I don't expect to be treated as the embodiment of innocence; everywhere around me are implicit messages that I am guilty. I deal every day with the presumption that I'm Bad.
Therefore, as she bemoaned her predicament, I got mad. I pulled away from her emotionally and resented her. A lot.
But, all this went unsaid. I didn't have the emotional space to work it through so it just sat there between us.
Fast forward about twenty years. I lived in a mixed race neighborhood and spent a lot of time with my neighbor who had four kids and I had two. She was Caucasian and Christian. After years of friendship and mutual support, we were walking and talking. She confided in me that she didn't understand why an African American woman mutual acquaintance was resisting her expertise on West Africa. My neighbor had lived in many parts of Africa for years. I said something like "A lot of Black people don't want White people mediating between them and Africa." What she heard was that she was a racist and that she was a bad person. We then had a conversation in which I explained and she defended, and then we parted. Eventually we did resume our friendship, but that failed conversation was like a rock in my gut. Once again her "innocence," a Caucasian woman's presumed position of inherent Goodness was challenged, and she fought hard to reclaim it.
Now really fast forward and you have the women's march on Trump's inauguration day. Remember the Twitter image of a Black woman holding a sign that said "53% of White Women Voted for Trump." Did you read the comments? Predictably, they broke down along race lines. White women proclaimed their innocence and Black women proclaimed their complicity in oppression.
I say all of this because if we are to have sisterhood, if we are to have authentic relationships between equals, then Caucasian women have to start seeing themselves as powerful agents of oppression and liberation. (Congressional hopeful Jess King pictured above gets this.)
Another way to put this is: You can't have all the bene's of white supremacy AND claim your innocence from it too.
Here's what you can do if you are Caucasian. Educate yourself about white supremacy culture, white fragility, white frame of reference, and unconscious bias. Watch yourself. Not to blame or shame but to SEE. Then accept. Then forgive. Then take inspired action. Sounds simple? It is. But simple ain't easy.
If you are a Black woman, a woman of African descent, don't give white women who say they stand for equity, inclusion or justice a pass--but try not to speak from a gotcha standpoint. It's more like helping someone to be all that they want to be. And all of us fall short in that department some of the time.
Peace and Love and Happy Women's History Month!
P.S.--If you want to do the work to Reflect on Yourself go here.
All I remember about the first poem I wrote was that it was in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. I remember one fragment: that man with Freedom in his eye
I was nine years old.
Even today, I adore the human being, the organizer, the disrupter, the person of faith we call MLK.
A couple of days ago, Michael and I performed at the Army War College at the Carlisle Barracks in PA. Amidst the uniforms and the formal hierarchy of that military base, I felt myself get small. I was suddenly unsure of my truth, if compassion and peace would make sense in the space. Why observe this holiday for a peace maker in an institution created for war?
Prior to our performance a Catholic priest quoted a prayer from King's Strength to Love. As I listened, I remembered again why I love this man--humility. Even those of us on the side of Justice and Peace, fall short. We love too little. We favor our egos too much. We look for ways to avoid pain. We are humans walking an imperfect path, imperfectly.
But as we concluded the performance I let MLK speak through me I felt his authority and his HUGE VISION. It was a rush, a flood of energy and power. And the soldiers dug it!
Today, Michael and I will be performing at the George School a Quaker high school and then getting on a plane for California. There, we get to spend two days creating art for justice and peace with Francis Wong, a Chinese American composer and saxophonist.
I'm grateful to you for accompanying me on this journey. I'm touched that I get to accompany you. If you'd like to go deeper with me, if you're ready for accountability and support this year, please reply to this email I've got lots of options for you!
May we all live into the fullness of our dreams and power in 2018.
So be it!
peace and love,
P.S.--Tribe of the H..E.A.R.T. Retreat at Pendle Hill is my only in-person workshop this winter. Great for those ready to take a break from the internet!
“You take aspirin for a headache. What you do you take for a heartache?”*
This was a question that stopped the conversation. We are so used to making pain go away. We take pain relievers without looking for pain solvers. We are so used to it being something outside ourselves that we can buy and swallow. Instant relief.
But what about when our hearts are breaking for someone’s child who has washed up on a beach after a failed migration? What do we do when someone has been run over and killed because she stood up for justice and equality in Charlottesville? What about when we hear a four year old comforting her distraught mother as she watches her father figure bleed out on Facebook live?
What do you take for heart ache?
Many of us look for an aspirin equivalent. I, myself, have prayed: “Please, God, don’t let me feel that. I can’t take that!” We resist the ache but that does not mean it goes away. Sadly, it stays with us. When I resisted the heart ache and anger about the killing of Sandra Bland, I went numb. Not only did I not feel “bad” I did not feel ANYTHING.
Suppose that’s what this system of white supremacist capitalistic patriarchy wants. Suppose it RELIES on us not feeling anything too deeply? It want us, it’s opponents to mimic its heartless tactics and ways of being. Maybe it wants us to only feel horny, anger and fear because that can be easily manipulated.
Suppose feeling grief and sadness (not the same thing as numb or dead) allows grief and sadness to move through us and in their place comes love, peace and connection to our Trusted Source? Does that sound unlikely? Does it seem like the pain or sadness is to big for it to ever end?
Let me tell you about an experience.
A few days after the Charlottesville killing and attacking, I sat on the phone with two people I mentor. We felt angry, sad, hateful, and scared. What to do? After we held space for transformation for a few minutes, I said let’s really feel our feelings. Let’s not talk about them. Let’s be with ourselves as we feel them together. Each of us got something to draw or color with, and for ten minutes we just moved our writing implements across blank paper. The only rules: no words, no judgement, just stay with the feeling and express it through this non-verbal, non-linear, embodied action. By the time we completed and shared, we had each come back to our strong, flexible selves. I went straight from that call to a difficult situation and noticed how i felt confident and whole while dealing with the stress in the room.
In contrast the suppression, repression and rejection of these vulnerable feelings keeps us intellectualizing, attacking, critiquing, or other modes which may agitate but not move us to actions aligned with our goal/vision. We need action that aligns with the world that we are creating. You reap what you sow. If you sow hatred, you will reap hatred even if the people you are hating are really, really hateful.
Listen to your allies, your mentors, your sisters and brothers in the movement to create a new world. Are they “hard to the core”? Does their rhetoric feed you? Does it strengthen your connection to your heart?
What about you? How are you allowing feelings to flow through you? Are you resisting or cutting off your heart in favor of analysis and critique? Where will that take us? How far will we travel? What depth of transformation can we effect without being vulnerable?
Don’t take an aspirin. Don’t distract or numb. Express yourself. Let sadness, anger, fear, hate flow through you onto a page, into movement, through sounds. Do it alone or in community. Daily. Do it imperfectly. Without a lot of thinking. 5 minutes. 3 minutes. 1 minute. Whatever sounds doable. Just do it!
Peace and love,
*P.S. — Thanks to David Vita at UU Westport for asking me this question.
Almost thirty years ago I heard an administrator with Luis Valdez's Teatro Campesino say "The art leads." How true that's been to me. When I didn't know what happened to my mother, my play told me she'd been in jail for five years. My mother later confirmed this. When I needed to switch careers, my character Jemima said "Stop hiding behind that podium." Art leads. It circumvents the determinism and tiny self-focus of the mind, and goes straight to the wisdom of the heart. Nothing creates community like art. Just this morning my violinist husband said he plays chamber music to break down walls, so that he can be with other people without their walls being up. Even religion relies on art to access divinity, God/Spirit within.
Nonetheless, I was caught by surprise this weekend by Jon Jang's Can't Stop Cryin' for America." There I was on a stage at SF Jazz, listening to the Jon Jangtet go all in on one of his original compositions and it just hit me how much I really liked his music. Jon had invited me to collaborate on his new piece "Can't Stop Cryin' for America; Black Lives Matter." I was sitting on a high stool waiting for my entrance.
I decided to let the music work on me.
I watched as people's heads moved in time to the music. I watched Black people look delighted and surprised as they heard the depth of Jang's Black music engagement. Funk, Mingus, gospel, jazz and his own Chinese heritage... it's all there.
I let the music work in me.
This particular number set to my "Ferguson Diaries" made a chorus out of the phrase "Hands up. Don't shoot. I want to live." I felt the command and affirmation in the music. When I jumped back in to the song, the ensemble grew louder and and the phrase shortened to "hands up." But by then, it had become a call to action, to get involved. Yet the richness of Jon's roux, of his rhythm section, kept it grounded in the musical experience. It was not a rally; this was not a speech. Jang's music was artful energy work that was infusing us with a will to "upset the set up."
I surrendered to the music, and felt some of the heaviness leave me.
Just two days earlier, the officer who had killed Philando Castille had been acquitted. My social media feeds were burning with Black people's outrage at the decision. One Black musician had urged his face book friends to "Burn. It. Down." if he was killed. He didn't want a rally or a hashtag. He expressed what a lot of us are feeling. Inside our black pumps, pressed slacks, summer dressed and dyed tresses. Rage. And not far below that--grief.
As Jang's master work progressed, we went to grief. Using "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" Jang musically called in the spiritual to express the sorrow after the massacre in the Black church in Charleston, SC. Titling his piece "More Motherless Children," Jang had asked me to write a poem on the massacre. "Sixty Minutes of Bible Study/ Six minutes of shooting/ Nine people dead" was my refrain. Words and music invited people to imagine the scenario and feel the grief personally, and to connect the recent killings to our history of enslavement, whippings, torture, and powerlessness. Yet, the music also evoked our resilience and creativity.
As I write this, I'm realizing that the Jangtet gave us a safe place to feel and a pathway to face this present moment. From my own experience, I've learned that allowing myself to feel, without judgement, is the quickest route to strength, restored balance. "Can' Stop Crying for America" created an energetic container for rage, grief and ultimately love.
For example, the two final pieces "Why did they have to shoot him so many times? (For Mario Woods and Jocelyn)" and "Yemaya" brought comfort and companionship from those who had passed on. The first piece began with a cacophony of sound symbolizing the twenty bullets hitting the unarmed Mario Wood's body. Listening and feeling the blows, I surrendered again.
I let myself trust the music.
After the spraying of the bullets, I asked the audience four times "Why did they have to shoot him so many times?" in various tones and moods. The response came via the music. A beautiful gentle melody that pointed us away from the suffering to love. I got over my fear of singing wrong, and just let myself hum along. As a Black mother, I sang love to my child, as a mother I let my child who had died comfort me. The music reminded me that underneath it all, our love can't be taken by a bullet and it can't be stopped by death. As I said at the concert, it was as if the ancestors dropped this little melody into Jon to pass on to us.
Once the music had taken us to love, how perfect then that we could call on Spirit.
We concluded with "Yemaya" a duet between the only female member of the Jangtet and me. A call to the West African Goddess of the Seas and Oceans, my poem asked Yemaya to clear us and to take back the water and heal it. Hitomi Obi, a slight Japanese American woman, wielded that saxophone like an ax as she cut through the debris, the pollutants, and the sick ideologies that poison us via everyday life, like the water the fish cannot see. They say that our spiritual resources, helpers, ancestors, G/gods can't help us without a call. This final piece made that call. Now all we have to do is listen.
I don’t know about you, but I’m emerging slowly from a week of intense family time, Kwanzaa celebration and lots of eating and drinking.
This week I’ve been late for stuff and spent one whole day just fuzzy headed!
But one thing I’m clear about is that I need Black Arts especially as we head into Trump’s “make America great again.” For me Black Arts is art that draws on our traditions and cultures with the intention of edifying our community and nourishing humankind.
This brings me to the film Fences which was directed by Denzel Washington and featured him and my fave Viola Davis. August Wilson’s most produced work, Fences was the closest he got to a Hollywood film deal. However, Wilson took a controversial stand in 1990 and publicly declared “I want a “black director” for Fences and got a lot of criticism. It’s taken twenty-five years for Denzel to deliver on August’s dream.
Fences shows us that 1950s America wasn’t so “great” for Black people. For example, its main character, Troy, never got to play in the Major Leagues because they barred Black players. By the time Jackie Robinson was invited into Major League baseball, many great athletes including Satchel Paige and the imaginary Troy had already aged beyond their prime.
However, what’s most important about Fences is that it elevates African American culture, language, and storytelling into a beautiful human experience. The characters in Fences counter degrading stereotypes that fill the cultural mainstream. Fences’ Troy is flawed, for sure, but he is also engaged in loving respectful relationships. He values family and friends rather than money, fame or consumer goods. Moreover, he tells stories that illuminate intergenerational trauma, humor, and philosophy in a Black vernacular that is rhythmic, sophisticated and accessible. I just gotta say it: August Wilson is to Black vernacular as to Shakespeare is to English.
We need this kind of art as we shift from Obama to Trump, from Michelle to Malina. We need stories that remind us of our humanity; I need stories that counter the limited stereotypes that pervade television. This is especially true as America increasingly re-segregates, and many whites have no meaningful relationships with real Black people in their everyday lives. According to Slate, 75% of white Americans have no contact with people of color.
But you don’t need me to tell you to go see Fences. Denzel and Viola have a huge marketing machine that will make sure you do that. Instead, I recommend that you support local Black Arts in your community. Get to know local Black artists and become part of their audience. Build relationships and become part of cross cultural art making. Fences deserves support, but any ticket or book you buy in support of local artists could literally make the difference between an organization surviving and dying.
If you live in the Lancaster Area, come to Black Fire: Celebrating Black Arts on Sunday Jan. 8 at 3pm-4:30pm at 24 W. Walnut St. Hosted by Theatre for Transformation and Fruition, this event is free and open to the public and will feature Lancaster Black writers, visual artists and musicians.
Theatre for Transformation will be doing lots of stuff in Los Angeles, Boston, Elizabethtown, Lancaster, and Philadelphia. Come and be part of Black Arts. Denzel, Viola you are both welcome too!
Peace and love! -Dr. Amanda Kemp
For some of us, this solstice, this Kwanzaa, this Hanukkah, this Christmas is a tangle of fear, anger, love and joy. Every time I turn on the radio, there’s another thing to worry about. My shoulders are tired and my sleep has been troubled.
Nonetheless, when I heard Sister Ruby declare “You can’t coerce me into hating you,” in a recent interview I remembered I have power. I’m not at the mercy of someone else’s actions. I can impact my internal mindset. Sister Ruby talked about growing up with Black folk religion as opposed to the formal church and how it protected her from Southern apartheid. Black folk religion kept her connected to a wellspring of love, including a love for herself. “I grew up believing that I was a first class human being and a first class person.” According to Ruby hate wasn’t even in her vocabulary in her small tight knit Black southern community. She grew up singing “I love everybody; I love everybody; I love everybody in my heart.”
Today, most of us don’t live in tight knit communities. Many of us question our value. And hate is all around us.
How do we choose to love?
We can’t do it alone. Not for long. We need each other. We need to hear each other’s stories. A mentor shared Ruby’s interview with me. I didn’t know I needed to hear her story until I listened.
Who do you need to hear?
My theatre company, Theatre for Transformation, is hosting an Art and Healing circle on Dec. 27 at 6pm (on the second day of Kwanzaa). Here, we will listen to each other, share songs, poems, prayers and healing rituals. The coming year, 2017, will challenge us. We will need to remember who we are and to stay in our hearts come what may. Please come.
If you can’t come to Lancaster, I invite you to hear my story via the Say the Wrong Thing audiobook.
There’s something raw and close about listening to my voice and my son’s voice as we share our stories of confronting racism, and feeling love and grief.
You can listen now.
Whatever you do, put your ears where your heart is. If you want a multicultural, multiracial equitable world, then listen to the stories of artists, change makers, healers etc who are building that. We have to focus on our internal mindset so that lying news and lying presidents don’t trigger us into mirroring the system we want to overhaul. Note to DT “You don’t own me!”
Peace and love,
-Dr. Amanda Kemp
How often do you act from fear or worry or exhaustion rather than your vision when it comes to race? For most of us, this is our default.
Please don’t judge yourself; it’s actually a biological disposition of our brains to dwell in actual or potential threat.
I’m asking the question as a way to remind us that there is another way. When we bring something to consciousness, we can choose.
Think about it. Do you want The Donald determining your actions? Do you want the latest killing to drive your choices? I don’t. I want to own the power of my vision, my soul, my inner guidance.
I recommend that you ask yourself: What do I want to create today? What is my vision for my family or my school? How can I do one thing that will move us toward that vision?
This is not to say that your vision has to be about changing big entities every day. You can choose to focus on yourself. Try this: create a vision of how you want to value or extend compassion to yourself today. Then, respond to requests, criticisms, compliments from that vision. Notice how you feel.
If you are like me, then you’ll keep forgetting your vision and need reminders. Write it down or take a picture of an image that symbolizes your vision. Post it in your car or on your phone screen.
Best of all share this vision with community. As they say, when two or more are gathered we have power. Would you like a community to share your vision?
Well, come on in! I invite you to be part of a tribe that can help you hold your intention or a vibration (as Niyonu Spann would say) for love and racial justice. I’m setting up a Facebook Group called Tribe of the H.E.A.R.T.
If you like live and in person, please join me for the Say The Wrong Workshop or an upcoming performance. Details at my website.
In the meantime, Act from your Vision.
Peace and love,
-Dr. Amanda Kemp