A Change of Heart: Muslims & Whites Crossing Cultures in a Memphis Neighborhood

By Storyteller Kate Dudding

Story Summary

In 2010 when the members of the Memphis Islamic Center bought property on the street nicknamed Church Road, they thought they’d have a hard time proving to their Christian neighbors that they were a peaceful community. When the pastor of the Methodist church across the road learned of the purchase, he didn’t know what he should do.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: A Change of Heart-Muslims & Whites Crossing Cultures in a Memphis Neighborhood

Discussion Questions:

  1. What caused Pastor Steve and Mark to change their minds? Why do you think not all Christians react to Muslims in the same way the Heartsong congregation did?
  2. What do you do or could you do to support Muslim Americans?
  3. Do you believe we have a responsibility to offer role models to others?
  4. Have you ever been in a situation where you were the only person who looked like you? What did you do and what happened?

Resources:

Themes:

  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European Americans/Whites
  • Housing/Neighborhoods
  • Interfaith
  • Muslim Americans
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking a Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

Hi, I’m Kate Dudding.

During an interview in 2010 in Memphis, Tennessee, Dr. Bashar Shala said, “We were just looking for a place to pray and play, to hold weddings, and celebrate holidays, to have a place to relax on weekends. Uh, activities for our seniors and a day care for our young children.

We had put a bid in on a piece of land. But as soon as the owner found out about our community, he rejected our bid. It took us several more months to find another plot of land. Oh, it was ideal! 30 acres of rolling hills and a pond. We put a bid in and it was accepted. But the plot of land was right on a road in Memphis that is known as “church road” because of so many Christian churches that are on that road. We knew we would have to work very hard to prove that we are a peaceful community.”

Again, this was 2010, Dr. Bashar Shala was a 49-year old cardiologist and the chairman of the board of the Memphis Islamic Center. He said, “Memphis is the buckle of the Bible Belt. And here we were, Muslims going to establish a community right in the middle of ‘church road.’”

Meanwhile, on the other side of church road was Heartsong Church, a United Methodist community, uh, with Pastor Steve Stone as their leader. One day, he was home reading the newspaper having… enjoying his morning coffee when he saw a headline, “Muslims to build a large community center.” He said, “A large community center? I didn’t realize that there were that many Muslims in Memphis.” He read on, and then he got to the address and then he checked the address. “Hah! It’s right across the street? What are we going to do?”

So, he went to Heartsong and sat in his office and prayed. As he was praying, one of the stories that Jesus had told came to him.

One day, a traveler was robbed and beaten and left at the edge of the road. Many people passed him by. But only one stopped – a Samaritan. At that time, Samaritans were a despised religious sect because they only believed some of the Jewish principles. But it was the Samaritan who stopped and did all that he could to ensure that this traveler would recover and be able to return home.

Pastor Steve thought, “We’re going to have to figure out a way to be good neighbors to these Muslims.”

So, the next day, he ordered a big red vinyl sign, six feet wide with right… with white lettering. When it came, he put it right on the edge of Heartsong’s property, so everyone traveling on church road could see it, “Heartsong Church welcomes the Memphis Islamic Center to the neighborhood.”

A few days later, Dr. Shala drove past, stopping to look at that idyllic piece of property that they had purchased. And he saw the sign. He later said, “Almost all the nervousness I had had disappeared once I saw the sign.” He went in and introduced himself to Doct… uh, to Pastor Steve.

Pastor Steve said, “If you need a place to hold a meeting while the construction is going on or, um, you need to use our parking lot, please feel free to do so.”

So, his community did use, uh, the facilities at Heartsong Church to hold business meetings during the construction of their mosque and their large community center. Now you might have guessed that perhaps not every member of the Heartsong Church welcomed, uh, wanted to welcome the Muslims.

Some of them were very confused as to what Pastor Steve was doing. One of them was a man named Mark, a painting contractor. He and his wife had been members of Heartsong Church for 10 years. Mark said, “I didn’t understand what was going on. I was very uncomfortable.” He and his wife talked about leaving Heartsong Church but decided that they would speak with Pastor Steve first. At that meeting, Mark said, “Why are we welcoming Muslims? What’s going on here?”

Pastor Steve said, “I’ve met these people. They are educated, peaceful people. It is my Christian faith, not a deep study of Islam, that is at the root of my decision to welcome these people. Mark, I want you to go home and read the first four books of the New Testament, the Gospels. And if you find anything there that contradicts what I’m doing, I want you to come back and tell me about it.”

Mark did as he was asked. And later he said, “I realize, I realized that I was the problem. They weren’t the problem, I was the problem.”

Mark and his wife decided to stay at Heartsong Church but not everyone was convinced. Pastor Steve spoke with everyone who questioned his decision. But 20 of his 800 members left the church, some of them in key leadership positions. Pastor Steve said, “While we were sad to see them go, at the same time, we realized that if that’s how they felt, if that’s what they really believed, they didn’t really belong in Heartsong.

The next year, well, Dr. Shala and the rest of the leadership team at the Memphis Islamic Center were racing the calendar. The schedule had been that the construction of the mosque would be done in time for the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan, where Muslims, uh, fast during the daylight and then come to the mosque for special evening prayers.

As the holy month of Ramadan grew closer, Dr. Shala was getting more and more nervous. Finally, he scheduled a meeting with Pastor Steve and said, “Would it be possible if our mosque isn’t ready by the beginning of Ramadan for us to meet here for several nights for our evening prayers? Of course, we would pay you.”

Pastor Steve said, “How many people do you think you’d be bringing?”

Dr. Shala thought about his new community and said, “A hundred, maybe 200.”

Pastor Steve said, “Well, then you would have to meet in our sanctuary and that would be just fine except one thing. You can’t pay us. We will not accept any money. We’re neighbors.”

At that, the two men embraced with tears of happiness in their eyes. As he was leaving, Dr. Shala said, “I am going to pray that our mosque will be ready in time.”

Pastor Steve said, “You can pray the way you want but I’m going to be praying that it won’t be ready, at least for a few nights. I think that would be good for your community and it would be good for mine.”

Pastor Steve got his prayer answered and then some. The mosque was not ready ’til after the end of Ramadan. So, every night during that holy month of Ramadan, Muslims came and prayed in the sanctuary of Heartsong United Methodist Church. And every night, some members of that congregation were there to greet the Muslims. Pastor Steve said, “We wanted to make sure they felt at home.”

After the prayer service at the last night of Ramadan, the Muslim scholar who had conducted the, the prayers gestured to Pastor Steve to come to the front of the sanctuary. Then the Muslim scholar said, “I know we Muslims have heard bad things about Christians and they have heard bad things about us but now we have met real Christians (gesturing to Pastor Steve and the hosts that had come that night to welcome the Muslims) and they have met real Muslims.”

That month of Ramadan was the beginning of many friendships and connections between those two communities. They started holding joint events: feeding the homeless, having interfaith discussions, near the anniversary of 9/11 holding joint blood drives. And then two months later, celebrating Thanksgiving together. Mark, that painting contractor who had been skeptical about welcoming Muslims, he said, “I never thought I would ever meet any Muslims. I love it. It’s like my world has gotten bigger.”

Dr. Shala and Pastor Steve occasionally are asked to speak in front of area schools and community groups. Whenever they do, they are always asked this question, “Have any Christians converted to Islam or have any Muslims converted to Christianity?

They always say, “No. No one has converted but we’ve all become stronger in our own faiths.”

Now these two communities have a new plan. They want to make church road into a destination where people can come and celebrate interfaith respect and camaraderie.

Each community has donated land to create a large park to be called Friendship Park. Dr. Shala likes to say, “We are making world peace, one friendship at a time.”

They are in the midst of fundraising for Friendship Park and about to hire their first executive director. Because both communities have donated land on either side of church road, there’s going to have to be a bridge across church road to connect the two parts of Friendship Park.

I view that bridge as a second sign, not as explicit as that big red vinyl sign that had welcomed the Muslims to the neighborhood in 2010, but I think that bridge will be a sign, nonetheless, that indicates good neighbors live here.

My Chinese Grandfather

by Storyteller Brenda Wong Aoki

Story Summary

As a child, Brenda visits her Grandfather who collects, dries and sells seaweed along the coast of California. When she is older, she helps him with his work. Brenda finds his ways strange and the work hard, but the two find unique ways of talking and enjoying each other’s company.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  My Chinese Grandfather

Discussion Questions:

  1. What service did Brenda’s Grandfather provide? Why do you think he lived the simple life he did?
  2. Do you have any relatives whose language, cultural customs or ways of making a living are very different from yours?
  3. Do you have any relatives you wish you had spent more time with? If you had an extra few days with them right now, what would you ask them? How would you want to spend your time with them?

Resources:

  • Chinese Americans: The Immigrant Experience by Peter Kwong and Dusanka Miscevic
  • Chinese American Voices: From the Gold Rush to the Present by Judy Yung and Gordon H. Chang
  • Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans by Jean Pflaezer
  • The Chinese in America: From Gold Mountain to the New Millenium edited by Susie Lan Casel You can read an excerpt from the book and on page 161, you can see a photo of Brenda (the teen with the glasses), her younger sister, her aunts and her Grandmother with her Grandpa, George Lum, drying seaweed. There is a picture of How Long on page 163. In the actual book, on page 167, the little boys in the photo are Brenda’s uncles. Excerpt and photos at: http://bit.ly/SeaweedGatherers

Themes:

  • Asian Americans/Asians
  • Civil Rights Movement
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European Americans/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Identity
  • Languages
  • Workplace

Full Transcript:

I’m Brenda Wong Aoki. And when I was a little girl, I used to wish that I could trade in my grandpa because I felt like I got cheated ’cause I know what grandpas were supposed to look like. You know they have, like, white hair and twinkly eyes and you go to their house for, like, Thanksgiving or Christmas or something. Except my grandpa wasn’t like that. My grandpa didn’t have any hair, and he didn’t even have a house. So, I, I, ss… he was Chinese. But now that I’m older, I wish that I spent less time thinking about trading in grandpa, and more time getting to know him.

My grandpa lived in an old, tin roof shack. It was built out of tar paper and pieces of wood he’d just find on the beach. He had no electricity, no running water. He never really learned English, and his strange gruff ways used to scare me.

I can remember my first trip to Grandpa’s was 1959. I was six years old. We were in our old Chevy station wagon, and along the way I saw a sign that said, “How Wong” ’cause I just learned how to read. How Wong. That confused me. But my mother explained that How Wong was Grandpa’s best friend. They had come together from Canton, China when they were only 18 years old.

And then I saw a dwarf, right out of Snow White. It was Grumpy. No, it was Grandpa. Inside his shack, he had frogs big as my head, living in his sink and they were ribbiting. (Ribbit! Ribbit!) My mother gave me some flowers to give to Grandpa, a bouquet of flowers. He wouldn’t take it (giggle). “Moano zhu tou! Zhu tou! Stupid bamboo head!”

It turns out, bamboo head, that’s what you call ABCs. American-born Chinese, because we’re hard on the outside and hollow in the inside and Grandpa thought I must be a stupid ABC if I didn’t know that cut flowers are an omen of death. He thought I was trying to kill him or somethin. That summer, that night, Grandpa laid down blankets on bales of seaweed and blew out the kerosene lamp (whooo). We are at the edge of the ocean. There are no streetlights. Nothing. You can’t even see your hand in front of your face. And I didn’t remember seeing a bathroom. Mom hands me a metal pail. “What’s this for?”

“You know.”

“You mean?”

“Um huh! We call it a thunder bucket.”

When we left, our car was covered with pigeon droppings like icing on a cake. I had never seen anything like it. And that’s what I remember from my first trip to Grandpa’s. And after that, we would return to Grandpa’s every summer, and help him gather seaweed ’cause this is how Grandpa made a living. He would gather seaweed, spread ’em out to dry. Then later on, cut ’em into little pieces, put ’em in packages and sell ’em to Chinatowns throughout California, and even over to China.

When I was 16 years old, we returned to Grandpa’s. This time the sign said, “How Wong is the Chinaman.”

My mother explained, “Somebody must have written that because they were being racist.”

That summer I found myself wearing men’s galoshes, Grandpa’s overalls and this big coolie hat. I looked totally f.o.b. (fresh off the boat). And after they left me at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning, whatever time the tide was low, his little green flashlight leading the way, we climbed down the cliffs on these little steps my grandpa had hewn out of the rock. Now I was slippin’ and sliding trying to keep up with Grandpa’s short, stocky legs. He was just like buh, buh, buh, buh, buh, buh, buh! Buh, buh, buh, buh, buh, buh, buh, and down. And I was hangin on for dear life. When we finally get down to the bottom, there was tidepools but tidepools like you can’t see anymore. Tidepools that were like jewels with pink and green sea anemones, orange starfish, little baby crabs,
golden fish, eh, gorgeous! But there was no time to look.

Grandpa would say, “Fai Dee! Fai Dee! Hurry up!”

Oh, the tide would not wait. So, twist and pull and throw in the basket. We gathered seaweed. Twist and pull and throw in the basket. Not the green one, not the brown one, just the black one for sushi. That kind. Twist and pull and throw in the basket, twist and pull and throw in the basket. This was terrible on my fingernails! Twist and pull and throw in the basket. This was not the way I was supposed to spend my summer. I have a new, brand-new bikini with white polka dots. And I was supposed to be on the beach, listening to the Beach Boys with my transistor radio instead of here with him. And he can’t even understand English. Twist and pull and throw in the basket! Twist and pull and…

“Watch waves.”
“What are you talking about? Watch waves.”

“Watch waves!”

Ah! This was really dangerous work. There’s no lifeguards out here. Ah, huh! When we were done, the beach was covered with all these big baskets full of wet seaweed. My grandpa would take this big pole and he’d put the baskets on either side, and he’d just climb up the cliffs. Buh, buh, buh, buh, buh! Buh, buh, buh, buh! Uuh! Buh, buh, buh! Uuh! Buh, buh, buh, buh, buh! Uuh! They must have weighed about 200 pounds easy, those two wet baskets. And when he was finished, I was up there spreading ’em out, spreading ’em out, spreading ’em out ’til we had, like, I dunno… seemed to me like a football field full of thick seaweed. Then when we’re finished, Grandpa would go into the shed, into his shack. He’d light a fire in the stove. (Shhhh!) Shoo the frogs out the sink. “Go now. Go. Go!” and they’d hop away.

He’d take a great big wok and make dinner. (Shh, hhh, hhh!) Sometimes on special occasions, Grandpa would bring out a Chinese delicacy, pickled chicken feet. Little toenails clicking, he’d walk them across the table towards me. Eeheeheeheeh! He loved to do that. Heh, heh, heh, heh! After supper, Grandpa would take 180 proof Chinese whiskey, pour it in a teacup, and in another, he’d pour me tea.

He’d say, “This fo’ me. This fo’ company!”

He’d light a big stogy, (ooh, whoo), look me in the eye and say, “Ooh, whoo, ah, Blenda! Blenda! How’s skoo?”

Brenda, how’s school? That was Grampa’s favorite American line. You see, in Chinese, words take on different meanings if you change the intonation. So, my grandpa would change his tones and think he was saying a whole bunch of American words. Our conversation used to sound something like this.

“Ah, Blenda! How’s skoo?”

“Grandpa, tidepools are cool.”

“Ah, Blenda! How’s skoo?”

“Tomorrow can we take a day off?”

“Blenda! How’s skoo?”

We used to talk like that for hours. At the end of the summer, Grandpa poured gasoline on the rocks and torched them. I remember standing with him watching the flames burning on the waves. He said that was so the old seaweed could die and the new seaweed could grow.

When my parents picked me up, I gave my grandpa a big kiss on his bald head, right between his big, floppy ears (smooch). And he said to me, “You go now! Go! Go!”

And he stood there all alone in the cow pasture with his little green flashlight. And that beam never wavered until we’d gone all the way up the mountain and dropped over the crest.

My grandpa died when I was in college, and we buried him up near San… up near San Francisco in the Chinese cemetery. Cem… cemeteries were all segregated. And the Chinese cemetery is right behind Home Depot, so I can always find it. Everybody put cut flowers on his grave, but I remembered and brought a small green plant that still had its roots.

Recently, my Uncle Victor passed away, and I found out that my grandpa was one of the last seaweed gatherers off the coast of California. This was a community that had been there for 100 years. They’d escaped the purging of the Chinatowns when Chinatowns throughout California were burned down. And fleeing Chinese were shot or lynched or put on barges and left out in the open sea without water or food. Grandpa and a bunch of men and their families, they, they gathered seaweed quietly on the coast. And they were respected because they weren’t in competition for the ranch hands, uh, jobs or anything. They also had money. They were merchants. They sold to China; they sold to Chinatown.

And I interviewed one of the ranch hands, and she said that my grandpa had saved them during the Depression. She said, “We were starving. The ranch hands were starving but your grandpa came with baskets, and he brought us Chinese food. It was the first time I’ve ever had Chinese food.”

And I thought, “Chinese food and baskets.”

She said she’d never had fish or crab before in her life until grandpa came and saved them during the Depression. So, my grandpa was a well-respected merchant. Georgie Wong, the Chinaman.

Sagebrush Santa: Christmas, 1942 in the Minidoka Internment Camp

by Storyteller Alton Takiyama-Chung

Story Summary

Five-year-old Kiyoshi, tries his best to make sense of his world which has been turned upside down since Japan attacked a place called Pearl Harbor. Since his father was taken away, he has had to leave his home, and spend the summer in a horse stall in the big city of Portland, Oregon. He has gone on his first train ride ever and has ended up near Twin Falls, Idaho in a place called Minidoka. It is Christmas Eve, 1942 and Santa will be coming soon.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  Sagebrush Santa-Christmas, 1942 in the Minidoka Internment Camp

Discussion Questions:

  1. You are sent to a remote location with no access to stores, schools, or libraries.  You are away from most of your friends and are forced to stay in one place.  There is no cell phone service, internet connection, and electricity is unreliable.  What would you do to keep from being bored?
  2. Suppose that everyone in your class who wore the color purple on a particular day are told to go stand in one part of the room and everyone else are to stand in another part of the room.  You are now told that those in the purple group are bad and are not to be trusted.  Your best friend is in the purple group.  How do you feel?
  3. Under what circumstances does the Government have the right to put people in jail without trial as they are suspected or have the potential of doing something wrong?
  4. Christmas is coming and you have no money to buy gifts nor are there stores nearby, and mail delivery is unreliable.  Yet you want to give presents to your family.  You have access to wood, paper, string, paint, rocks, glue, some desert plants, sand, some tools, and lots of time.  What gifts would you make for your family?

Resources:

Themes:

  • Asian Americans/Asians
  • Civil Rights Movement
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European Americans/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Identity
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • War

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name is Alton Takiyama-Chung. A few years ago, I went on a pilgrimage to Minidoka Relocation Center near Hu… Twin Falls, Idaho along with other members of the Japanese-American community from Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington. That’s an annual event that happens about every June. And it includes a tour of the site as well as side trips to the local attractions and the sharing of memories and personal experiences. I listened to the stories of these people who were children incarcerated in the camp. I asked a lot of questions and did more research. And I wrote this story about what it would be like to be a child far away from home, the first Christmas in a place called Minidoka.

The morning rains had turned the paths and roads into muddy swamps. By evening, the mud was covered over with a blanket of snow that softened the outlines of the towers and the buildings. The snow just glistened and glittered in the moonlight and to five-year-old Kiyoshi, he thought that this was… made the perfect Christmas picture.

In the high desert of southern Idaho, in the winter of 1942, Kiyoshi sat in the wi… Mess Hall of Block 7 squirming with anticipation. His older brother and older sister went off with their friends and his mother, his Okasan, was in the, in the barracks resting ’cause she had been doing laundry all day. But it was Christmas Eve and Santa Claus was coming.

Now, about a year ago, there was an attack in a place called Pearl Harbor. And shortly after that, these men in suits and the, and this big car came and took Kiyoshi’s father, his Otosan, away. That made Kiyoshi and his whole family very sad. And that’s when a cold, empty space opened up in Kiyoshi’s stomach. He missed his Otosan; he missed his father, the way that he would tousle his hair and call him Kiyoshi-chan, or little Kiyoshi.

Then came these things called curfew, which made people scurry around after the sun went down. And then there were these things called blackouts in which everything went dark.

But the thing that his mother feared the most was this thing called evacuation. When that came, Kiyoshi’s mom and his older brother and older sister, they packed whatever they could in the suitcases. They moved out of their house and into a horse stall at the Exposition Center in the big city of Portland, Oregon. Aw, it was hot and stinky and, aw, just horrible in this horse stall. Kiyoshi couldn’t understand why they just couldn’t go home. And then came the day when people gave them little pop… paper tags with the same number on it.

The whole family had to wear this little paper tag. And they were herded out of the horse stalls and onto a train guarded by these big soldiers with big guns. They went on this train over the mountains where they were herded out of the trains and onto buses. And they’re taken to their new home of wood and tarpaper shacks and dust. This’s the first time Kiyoshi had ever been on a train. It’s the first time he’d ever been out of the state of Oregon. It was also the first time he’d ever seen a barbed wire fence.

When they first arrived in Minidoka, there was no heat in the barracks. They’re only cold-water showers. The dust just kinda blew in through cracks around the windows and doors and through the walls. And the outside toilets were freezing cold, and often Kiyoshi would be woken in the middle of the night by the fussing of the baby at the far end unit of the barracks. At least now, they had hot water, and Kiyoshi could make it from the showers to his unit in the barracks without icicles forming in his hair.

As Christmas approached, Kiyoshi began to worry and he asked his Osakan, his mother, “Uh, will Santa be able to get a pass to get through the front gate? Do you think Santa will be able to make it through the small chimney of the stove in our, in our unit? Do you think the guards will shoot the reindeer if they get too close to the fence?”

His mother said that she didn’t know but she was pretty sure the guards wouldn’t do anything to hurt Santa Claus. And then Tommy, Kiyoshi’s best friend who was seven, who knew everything, said, “Ah, no, Santa Claus and reindeer, they’re magical! They can go anywhere.”

Kiyoshi watched the snowflakes drift past the window outside and got excited all over again. He looked into the mess hall and there he could see that the, the wait staff and the cooks dressed in their finest. They just served a beautiful turkey dinner. And someone had, had painted the nativity scene on one of the walls and the whole room was decorated in crepe paper streamers and tin can stars. Someone even brought in a, a sagebrush and decorated it with tinfoil and, and cotton ball snow – a Christmas tree. There was even a Christmas wreath made of wood shavings, and Christmas carols were playing very softly on a small radio. You see, in camp, you didn’t celebrate Christmas just with your family but with all the families of your block.

And, suddenly, then the door slammed open and someone began shouting. Kiyoshi immediately thought of the men who had come to take his Otosan away, his father. He dove under the table, clapped his hands over his ears, and shut his eyes. He didn’t see that the man who was coming in was dressed in a red suit, had a long, red hat, and a white beard. What he saw were the men in the suits taking his Otosan away while he’s dressed in his pajamas. He didn’t hear the man shout out, “Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas!” What he heard was his mother weeping.

All the other children gathered around Santa Claus as he sat down his sack and began handing out presents. Then, suddenly, someone touched Kiyoshi on his shoulder. It was his best friend, Tommy, “Kiyoshi, there you are! Santa Claus is here and he brought presents!”

Kiyoshi climbed out from under the table, saw this man dressed in this rumpled, red suit and a cotton ball beard who was gesturing to him. “Aw, Kiyoshi-chan, aw, aw, I’ve got a present for you!”
“A present? For me?”

“Aw, Reverend Townsend and Shigeko Uno had written letters to all these churches across the United States telling them about the situation here in camp and I have presents for all the children here in Minidoka. And I picked this one out just for you.”

And he handed Kiyoshi this oddly-shaped object dressed… wrapped in brilliant red paper and green ribbons.

“And, I, I know it’s hard with your Otosan, your father, away. But Kiyoshi-chan, do you know this Japanese word, gaman? It means to bear, to carry on, to not complain. We must adjust to the new situation. We must prove to everyone else that we are Americans first, ne? Wakade mas ka? Do you understand?”

“Hai! Wakade mas. I understand.”

“Aw, very good. Aw, now, I must go and deliver presents to all the other children in all the other mess halls. Now remember, gaman, Merry Christmas!”

And he was gone. Kiyoshi looked down at his present; he wasn’t forgotten. Santa remembered. Santa still cared. And he began to unwrap his present as all the other children, all the people in the mess hall began filing out ’cause the camp choir was singing Christmas carols outside in the snow.

And what emerged from the wrapping paper was this toy wooden truck. And Kiyoshi felt his chest tightened. It reminded him of that old truck that his father used to carry groceries from their farm into the markets in Portland. That small, cold, empty space in Kiyoshi’s stomach opened up and threatened to swallow him down.

Gaman. How could he carry on? He was just a little boy. He missed his father. He just wanted to go home. Tears began rolling down his cheeks. And he didn’t hear the door open up behind him while the footsteps approaching him.

“That is a beautiful truck you have there, Kiyoshi-chan.”

Kiyoshi turned around and looked at this man, gray hair, glasses. Who was this man? He didn’t recognize him until he reached out and tousled his hair. “Otosan! Father!”

And suddenly he was in his father’s arms smelling his smell. Aw, and that cold, empty spot just melted away and was replaced with this glowing warmth that make his whole body tingle.

“Father, how? When?”

“Aw, they let me go, Kiyoshi-chan so I could be here with all of you. Come! Let’s go outside and, and listen to the choir!”

So, hand-in-hand, they went outside but Kiyoshi couldn’t see so his father picked him up, put him up on his shoulders, and Kiyoshi balanced there with one hand on his father’s hat and one around his new toy truck. These three Army flatbed trucks have been pulled up in a “U” and the camp choir was standing on the trucks being led by Mae Hara, who the camp… the choir director. She had a baton with a little light on the end of it and she was leading them in Christmas carols.

And to five-year-old Kiyoshi balancing there his father’s shoulders, he knew that he could carry any weight, bear any burden. Gaman. To him, it was the best Christmas ever.

Exotic Food: The Legendary Origin of a Chinese American Dish

by Storyteller Alton Takiyama-Chung

Story Summary

People from all over the world came to America in the 1850s in search of riches during the California Gold Rush.  Many young Chinese men immigrated to America to earn money to support their families in China.  They experienced discrimination and violence, and could only live in specially designated areas, which became locally known as Chinatown.  Chinese food was considered to be “exotic” by the Lo Fan or White people.  This story follows one of the legends surrounding the origins of a popular Chinese American dish.  No one knows when or where the dish was invented and that makes for a good myth.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:   Exotic Food-The Legendary Origin of a Chinese American Dish

Discussion Questions:

  1. You have just arrived in a new country by yourself and are unfamiliar with the language or culture.  You must find a place to stay, food to eat, and a job to earn money.  What do you do?
  2. What is your favorite food?  Is there a special way you like to have that dish prepared?  What country or culture did that dish come from?  What food makes you most think of home?  How does it make you feel when you eat it?
  3. When did your ancestors first immigrate to the US?  Where were your ancestors born?  What did your grandfather and grandmother do for a living?  Where did your father and mother grow up?  In what cities have you lived?
  4. Why do you think the Chinese Americans had some fun feeding the white people leftovers? How does humor help relieve stress when people are being oppressed?
  5. You have travel to another country, can not speak the language, and have become separated from your parents.  You are lost and have no money.  What do you do?  How would you like people to treat you?  What would you like them to do for you?

Resources:

  • Chinese Immigrants in America: An Interactive History Adventure by Kelley Hunsicker.  2008.  Capstone Press, Mankato, MN.
  • The Gold Rush: Chinese Immigrants Come to America (1848 – 1882) by Jeremy Thornton.  2004.  PowerKids Press, New York
  • snopes.com/food/origins/chopsuey.asp Chop Suey Origins

Themes:

  • Asian Americans/Asians
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European Americans/Whites
  • Identity
  • Immigration
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name is Alton Takiyama-Chung. And this story, some people believe it’s true. You choose, you decide for yourself.

Hi, my name is Ming Wah. 1850’s or so, when Chinese began creating restaurants, yah, in America, Lo Fan, Westerners, white people thought, oh, Chinese food was exotic. So, I’m going to tell you this story, my restaurant friend told me about a famous Chinese American dish. Maybe true…hmm…maybe not. But, hey, good story.

I guess around 1850 Chinese can come into America in large numbers. See, in China this time is the revolution. Things, the whole country, was in ruins. Taiping Rebellion. People rising up against the government. There’s no work. And then in the South-eastern part China, all around Toisan District and ’round Canton. Lots of rain, flooding. Oh, people cannot even grow food. People starving. No chance for good life in China. Then, they hear about Gam Saan, Gold Mountain, America. See, gold was discovered in a place called Sutter’s Mill, California, 1848. People from all over the world come to America to get rich. In America, maybe chance for good life.

Whole families get together, pool money, buy one ticket, send one young man to America. One young man sail from Canton, China, cross Pacific Ocean, all the way to San Francisco, California. They hope maybe they find gold or get money. Send money back to China support the family. They think maybe work, three, maybe five years, and then come back. Some people in California, some people found gold, got rich, went back to China. Most, um, not. ‘Cause people, they had to deal with not only different culture but different language. And, also, Chinese had to pay special Foreign Miners Tax, four dollars a month. That’s about as much gold as you normally find in a month! Oh! And on top of that, people get beaten. They get, they get robbed. They get, even sometimes, killed! Oh! Some give up, go back China. Me? I stay. I still got family back in China I gotta send money to.

So, in China at this time, also, got, ah, alien land laws in the United States so Chinese cannot own land. Cannot vote. And we cannot live just about any place we like. Could only live in places specially designated, away from the Lo Fan, away from the white people. But wherever they are allowed to live, that becomes Chinatown.

Chinese, they open up stores, they open up restaurants, they open up laundries. Me? I got a job in store. We sell vegetables and fruits from nearby farms. Me, I keep the best vegetables, the best fruit for my restaurant friend. He tell me, “Oh, you guys got bess foo, best fruit, best vegetables!” He takes all that good food. He chop ’em up. He serve to his best Chinese customers entertaining special guests. Lo Fan. They like coming to Chinese restaurant because the food is exotic but for them, all too spicy.

My restaurant friend tell me, one night, almost closing, all these Lo Fan come to his restaurant. They are hungry. They want something to eat. Oh! He’s looking around. Almost no food left in the kitchen! All he has is leftover vegetables and leftover meat he wouldn’t serve his best customers! Ah! Never mind. Chop them up, put ’em in the wok. Chop up the meat, put ’em inside. Stir ’em up. Make gravy and then no spice. No, nothing. Make ’em bland. Put ’em on a plate. Serve ’em to the Lo Fan. The Lo Fan eat. “Oh! This is good! Oh, OK!” (Thumbs up.)

My friend look at them and go, “OK!” (Thumbs up.)

He go in the back, talk to all the cooks. The other cooks look at him, go, “OK.” (Thumbs up.) They start laughing. I think they’re still laughing.

See in the Toisan District, we call this dish tsap seui or leftovers. Now, white people, they cannot pronounce that so they call them Chop Suey.

Ha. My restaurant friend tell me, “You, you, you, come, come, come. You special friend. You, you, you eat free!”

I go, “Haha! OK!” (Thumbs up.) But me, never, ever order Chop Suey

December 7, 1941: An Eyewitness to the Attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii

by Alton Takiyama-Chung

Story Summary

Charles Ishikawa grew up in Plantation camps in Waipahu, Hawaii in the 1930s and 1940s.  He was 14 years old and on his way to his high school basketball practice when Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.  He saw the planes diving like sea birds over the ships in the harbor.  After Marshall Law was declared, he helped patrol the Plantation camps to make sure that no lights shown out at night.  He was issued a gas mask at school and helped dig an air raid shelter in his backyard.  He and his family took down and burned everything that was Japanese in their home.  They were Americans, but worried if they were American enough.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:   December 7, 1941-An Eyewitness to the Attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii

Discussion Questions:

  1. Imagine your town was being attacked.  You can see the planes dropping bombs and hear the explosions, but you appear to be in no danger.  What do you do?
  2. Imagine soldiers are being stationed in your school.  These soldiers can arrest anyone for any violations of the new laws and put them in jail.  They seem to be watching you and your friends.  What would you do?  What would you do differently?
  3. Imagine that important people in your community are being arrested and taken away.  Food is being rationed and travel is being restricted.  The internet has been shut down and all cell phones must to be turned in to the government.  You must carry around an identification card at all times.  How does all of this make you feel?
  4. Imagine that the government censors all newspapers, television and radio broadcasts, and reads your mail.  They also read all of your e-mail, internet posts, track your internet activity, and listened in on all of your long-distance phone calls.  How does this make you feel?  What would you do differently?

Resources:

Pearl Harbor Child: A Child’s View of Pearl Harbor from Attack to Peace Revised Edition by Dorinda Nicholson.  2001.  Woodson House Publishing.  Raytown, MO.

VisitPearlHarbor.org March 8, 2017  The Attack on Pearl Harbor and its Aftermath

Forbidden Photos Reveal What Life Was Like In Hawaii After Pearl Harbor.  December 7. 2016.  Huffington Post.  huffingtonpost.com/entry/hawaii-pearl-harbor-attacks-photographs_us_58462170e4b055b313990dad

Themes:

  • Asian Americans/Asians
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European Americans/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Identity
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • War

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name is Alton Takiyama-Chung. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to interview a tour guide at Hawaii’s Plantation Village in Waipahu, Hawaii. And it’s an open-air museum focusing on what life was like in the sugar cane and pineapple plantation camps in Hawaii from 1850 to about 1950. My guide, Charles Ishikawa, a retired principal and schoolteacher, grew up in the camps around Waipahu. And this is one of the stories that he told me.

My name is Charles Ishikawa and I grew up in the plantation camp in, around Waipahu in the 1930s, uh, 1940s. Waipahu is located about, oh, two, three miles from Pearl Harbor where, uh, WWII began for the United States. Now, my dad worked for the Oahu Sugar Company but we lived in Ota Camp. Ota Camp was, uh, a camp with the flatlands between, uh, Waipahu and Pearl Harbor. He lived there because he wanted to raise pigs and, uh, chickens for extra money. Oh, plenty pigs living close to plenty people. Mmm! Not a good idea because of the, uh… aroma.

But everyone else lived in segregated camps in, uh, above Waipahu, uh, and above the sugar mill. I mean, there was the, the Filipino camp and the Korean camp and the Portuguese, the Chinese, and the, the Puerto Ricans, and the Japanese people like us. Everybody had their own camp but all us kids, oh, we all went to school, Waipahu High School, so we all knew each other and we got along okay. Things changed a little bit after that Sunday, December 7th, 1941.

We’re driving to the gymnasium, yeah, on the west side of, uh, of Pearl Harbor for basketball practice when, suddenly, we noticed this plane swooping in low, just over the treetops. Had these big red circles (hinomaru) on the wings. And it’ll… the pilot was so low we could see the pilot. I mean, he had big goggles on, a dark helmet and as he flew on by looked like he was looking down upon us and so some of us looked up and we waved. He looked down and kinda smiled and waved down at us.

Further on down the road we see this lone U.S. National Guardsman. He has a Springfield bolt action rifle and he’s shooting at the plane. And then, suddenly, all these other planes… gots… diving in. He starts shooting at them.
(Bang! Chi-chick. Bang! Chi-chick.) We pull over. “Eh, howzit,” I say, “Uh, these guys, eh, terrific! The maneuvers, they look real!”

“What? Son, those are Japanese! They’re attacking Pearl Harbor.”

“What? Nah!”

And then a buddy of mine who is smarter than the rest of us kinda put it all together. “Hey, they not fooling around! This for real kine! They dropping real bombs!”

This made no sense. I mean, Japan was far away. How did they get here? And why would they attack us? What did we ever do to dem? Heh! Whatevers! I didn’t know what to believe but I kinda figure… eh, had, had nothing to do with us.

We didn’t want the coach to yell at us so we continued on our way. We arrived at the gym a little after 8:00. People already dribbling, shooting practice shots. But before we could change into our gym clothes, the coach called us all together.

“Japan has attacked Pearl Harbor and, uh, President Roosevelt has declared war. Uh, you should all just, just go home.”

Nobody said anything. Just went to the cars.

War? What did that mean? I mean, I was Japanese but I was also an American. And Japan had attacked America and that’s wrong. But I had an uncle and cousins and other relatives in Japan. Now that we’re at war, that means, will I ever be able to see them again?

Driving back to Waipahu, we could see the, the thick, black smoke billowing up from Pearl Harbor. And the planes diving, zigzagging all across the sky just like, like seabirds diving on a school of fish! Explosions are shaking us! You can see the flames shooting up into the sky! And the air was filled with the screaming sound of, of air raid sirens!

We pulled into town. We could see that, you know, all these people sitting on the roofs of the houses trying to get a, a better view of the… what was going on, the action of, uh, Pearl Harbor. And that’s when we learned that, later on, that one of our classmates, one of the Sato boys, was killed by shrapnel from friendly anti-aircraft fire. I mean, we just saw him yesterday. And now, he was make. He was dead! I mean, for real kine. Dead! He’s probably one of the first casualties, civilian casualties, of WWII. And it… this was bad… I mean, ships were on fire. Things were exploding ova there! People probably dying! This’s really bad.

That night mama called all us kids together. Tell us, “Uh, go through de house, uh. Pull down anything that has Japanese on it or look, uh, Japanese. Take ’em in the backyard. Burn ’em!”

Oh, we took down art work, family photos, even calendars! We burn it all. We were so afraid that the military police would come and arrest us for being spies. I mean, we were Americans but, suddenly, we felt like we were suspects, guilty until proven innocent. Americans but, mmm, maybe not American enough.

Then came martial law. It was 8:00 p.m. curfew and then nighttime blackout. Is… Everyone is so afraid that the Japanese would attack again or, or invade. And so, all the windows had to be covered over so no light shine through so the Japanese wouldn’t have any targets to shoot at. You know, the pineapple company, at this time, they would put down this tar paper in the fields to control the weeds. Overnight, rolls of the stuff just disappeared. And, you know, next few days all de windows of all de plantation houses had dis tar paper put on top just like the ones the field. Funny, yeah?

Now, I was in Boy Scouts and so, our job, we had to go patrol at night to make sure that no lights was coming through the windows. Uh, the, the light coming through the windows, we had to knock on the door and tell them to cover the windows. We had the little flashlight that, uh, we put this red paper on top so we can see but not be easily seen. Kinda creepy walking through the plantation town like this. Well, this real tiny red light to guide you.

Then everybody we knew was digging air raid shelters. So, we dug one too. But the only place we could dig it was between the house and the bath house and underneath mama’s clothesline. Oh, we spent hours digging that hole. ’Cause it had to be big enough for the whole family to go inside, yah? So, we dug it six feet down and four feet by four feet. We cut steps into the earth to get inside. And then we got these two by fours; we placed them on top. And we got an old piece of totan, this corrugated iron, to put on top the two by fours. And we covered over all the dirt that we dug out from the hole. Trouble was that totan we use was kinda weak and corroded, rotten. But that’s all we had. If anyone stood on top, the whole thing would collapse.

But after all dat work, we never used it. I was afraid to go inside that thing ’cause it was dark and dank and it was filled with cockroaches and centipedes. I kinda figured if the Japanese ever attack, I kinda just take my chances rather than go and hunker down in the mud with the cockroaches and centipedes.

Now, in school, they handed out… everybody had the handed-out gas mask. Oh, we had to carry dem wherever we went. They showed us how to put it on; how to breathe in it. Thing was made of rubber, smelled funny, and was kinda gross. You put it on, we all look like elephant people.

One of the scariest things was the soldiers. There were soldiers stationed in, uh, high school and, and off to the plantation camps. I mean, big haole soldiers, Caucasian soldiers, and big guards stood looking at all of us. I mean, do they think that us kids and our parents will cause trouble because we Japanese? I mean, we never figured out what they were guarding. We never ask. But… looking back upon it, they’re probably just ordered there. They’re probably just afraid of us as we were of dem.

Lots of stuff changed because of that Sunday. We hadda come up with new ways of living. I mean, anything Japanese, we disowned. We disowned part of who we were. And all the leaders of the Japanese-American community, they all got arrested and taken away. We hadda figure out how to do a lot of stuff on our own now. And the soldiers, the soldiers are always watching us. Hoh!

It was a long time before life was normal again in Waipahu. Three months after I graduated high school in 1944, I was drafted into the Army. Huh, Japanese-American boy, learn how to fight the Japanese. Huh, and what happened to me afta dat. Ah, well, dat’s another story.

The White Boys: Korean-Puerto Rican Girl Seeks Anybody

by Storyteller Elizabeth Gomez

Story Summary:

In The White Boys, Elizabeth tells of her struggle to be comfortable with her own identity outside the boundaries of the racial norm. She tells of the normal awkward struggles of adolescent love with the addition of struggling to find acceptance of her own racial features.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: The White Boys-Korean-Puerto Rican Girls Seeks Anybody

Discussion Questions:

  1. Have any of you been asked “what” you are”? How did it make you feel?
  2. Do you find people attractive based on their skin color? Do you think people do the same to you?
  3. What do you find most unique or beautiful about your features?
  4. When do you identify who you are as a person based on your racial makeup? When is it not a factor?

Resources:

Beauty Begins: Making Peace with Your Reflection by Chris Shook
The Beauty of Color by Imam

Themes:

  • Asian American/Asians
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European Americans/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Identity
  • Latino Americans/Latinos
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking a Stand/Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

Hi, I’m Elizabeth Gomez. I must have been about 37 when he walked into my life. He was about 10 years my junior and built like a god. Actor Ryan Gosling is everything I ever wanted in a man. He was tall and blond and perfectly sculpted, and, not to mention, he was white.

So. So, white. Ryan Gosling represented, to me, everything I never thought I could have in a man. He was white. You see, white boys don’t kiss brown girls – not brown girls like me, brown haired, frizzy bo…, frizzy-haired, chunky bodied, acne scarred skin, totally obsessed with Ted McKinley because one day we were going to actually get married on the Love Boat. Girls like me! White boys liked white girls and this is the way of the world.

I realized this as I sat in my fourth-grade chair turning over my letter that was marked no. I spent the night before working on this letter so hard. I made sure my handwriting was festive and straightforward and, yet, feminine. I made sure that every box on the wo… note were straight lines, sharply angled, square boxes, so that you could mark yes or no, so that your potential new lover would be able to tell you that you could or could not put his name all over your notebook.

Tyler was the whitest boy in school. He was a kind of white that was almost transparent. Near summer re… near summertime when we went to recess, I always thought it was very irresponsible for the teachers to let him out because the moment he hit the sun, his face would turn a vivid, bright red. And his neck looked like it was just burning, but I would stand there and bathe in the radiance of Tyler’s strawberry glow.

As I sat turning this letter over and over in my hand and looking at that box marked no, I noticed these notes next to it, which said, “You’re ugly.” But I knew exactly what he meant. When he said I was ugly, he was talking about my broad nose and my crazy, dark, thick hair and the fact that I didn’t even have Adidas from, like, a real store. They’re the K-Mart kind with the two stripes. What Tyler Jackson didn’t realize that he had did was set me on a path of destroying all white men. I mean, not really destroying all white men, but I was definitely set to crumble some hearts.

A year later, my next potential bu… bo… boyfriend, when I was in the fifth grade, was a guy named Jason McCleary. That’s not his real name. Okay, it’s totally his real name! I think he should know that because, you know, I’ve grown into quite the lovely lady. My skin is cleared up and I’ve really pulled my stuff together. Jason was everything I wanted in a man. He was white. I watched him every day and I imagined myself looking at him and just spending hours and hours and hours looking into his oceanic blue eyes and just talking about Megadeath and doing our hair together with hair spray. And I knew he was going to be my next boyfriend.

I also knew that if my Korean mother found out that I had a white boyfriend that I would be like “top notch, gal.” For example, my mother said to me that she didn’t care who I ever dated as long as he wasn’t Puerto Rican because my father was Puerto Rican. Also, she wanted him to be white.

Growing up in a small town in Virginia, I was the token “what are you girl.” It was, basically, that I didn’t know very many people of color. So, everyone who looked at me was like, “She’s not white and she’s not black. So, what are you?”

As a kid, it never really bothered me but as I was growing up and as a well-rounded adult, I look back at that and I wonder if that was really kind of the core of my problems. What are you? What are you? Is that the reason that I felt this need to be, like, neatly labeled and categorized and put into this box. Like, if I could do that, would it make me somehow justified or my presence or my life a r… given, uh, validation.

So, a year later I’m sitting at the desk again, looking at another note that says “no” and Jason flirting with Kim Cullerton, a petite, blonde, long hair girl. Kim Cullerton is not her real name. It totally is because she should know that she ruined my life.

Anyways, years and years later, because I didn’t date anyone in high school, I was afraid of being rejected.  I was standing in my dormitory, my college dorm, when I hear this, “Come on, Liz, Elizabeth. You know you got it like that.”

I was standing with Tyrone, my new boyfriend. He wasn’t white. He was dark, dark, dark, dark with like this beautiful body and this Barry White voice.

And he looked at me and he’s like, “You know, guys, they got a thing for Asians. Latin girls too. You got it all. You know, you’ve got that thing, Elizabeth. You know, you got that thing.”

“Thing. What thing are you talking about? Why have I had this thing and no one’s ever told me about it? Did I catch that when I was in the gym bathroom without my flip flops? What is this thing, Tyrone? I wanna know and I need to know now.”

Tyrone laughed at me, he laughed at me ’cause he thought I was funny. He thought I was charming. He said that my hair was great and that a big, fat, broad nose looks good on me. He told me that it didn’t matter what I looked like because I had so much other stuff. But I definitely had that thing, whatever that thing was. He kissed me, and everything was wonderful.

The next day, I kept thinking to myself, “What am I doing? Why is it that I’ve been wanting to be white this whole time? You know, white like my friends, like the Keatons on Family Ties, like Olivia Newton-John. What was white going to make me that I wasn’t already?”

At that moment, Ty opened a whole world for me, where I could realize that there are so many beautiful, colored people that I could love. And he did the best thing for me. He made me realize that it doesn’t matter what my color was or what I… my features were like.

But that I had that thing and I like that thing. And I would always have that thing. His warmth and his honesty made me feel accepted and made me understand a lot about what I was going through.

Look, I still like white guys, especially, if they look like Ryan Gosling – even if they look like Seth Rogen. But my insecurities are no longer about my race or my face. But really, it’s about me finding the way to love who I want, when I want.

The Colfax Louisiana Massacre: A Story about Reconstruction

by Zahra Glenda Baker

Story Summary:

This is Zahra’s personal story of reconnecting with her siblings and learning about how history is told through the voice of the “hunter”. On a journey back to their Louisiana birthplace, Zahra and her siblings uncover a story of an event that affects the lives of their family, community and the nation.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: The-Colfax-Louisiana-Massacre-A-Story-about-Reconstruction

Discussion Questions:

  1. What did the 4 million African Americans after slavery need in order to transition into full citizenship?
  2. What systems needed to be in place to secure a life with dignity for the former enslaved African Americans?
  3. Why is it important to question the perspective of history’s stories?
  4. Had you heard of the Colfax massacre? Why or why not?
  5. Why is it important to tell your own story?

Resources:

Red River by Lalita Tademy
The Untold Story of Black Power, White Terror, and the Death of Reconstruction by LeeAnna Keith
The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction by Charles Lane
Smithsonian Online Magazine Article on the Colfax Massacre: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/1873-colfax-massacre-crippled-reconstruction-180958746/

Themes:

  • African American/Africans
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcription:

Hi, I’m Zahra Baker.  And I spent the first three years of my life in Central Louisiana in a small rural area that was surrounded by pine trees and weeping willows, pecan trees and sat beside a place that was ironically called the Red River.  Now my family is complex.  And we had many difficulties in my early years.  But… I was the youngest of seven and because of that, I got sent away to live with my Uncle Willy and Aunt Dot for a… for a year in Slidell.  And then I was sent all the way to Lafayette, Indiana and was adopted by my Uncle Dave and Aunt Bessie.

Now this was far away from Colfax, Louisiana where I was born.  And it wasn’t until my young adult life that I was able to reconnect with my siblings.  And the day that we met each other again, I was filled with joy and sadness and sorrow and frustration and anger and gratitude and fear.  What if they didn’t like me?  What if we didn’t have anything in common?  We had so much time separated between us that I wasn’t sure if there was anything I had to offer them.  But when I met them, there was such a feeling for comfort and familiarity that all of the fear just washed away.  And they liked to talk a lot so there was a lot of laughter and a lot of chatter.  And I was determined that I was going to spend time with each one of them until I figured out what we had in common.  But what I came to realize was the story that we had in common was the story from our hometown Colfax, Louisiana.  So they had all moved West to California but every year we would decide to have a family reunion.  And often times we had that reunion in Colfax so that we could reconnect with our family and friends there.

So that on one of those trips, we were walking on down memory walk, sharing stories, and we came upon the courthouse.  And when we got there, we saw a sign and the sign said, “Colfax Riot.  On this site, there was an event called the Colfax Riot where three white men and 150 negroes were slain.  This event occurred April 13, 1873.” And the sign said, “This brought an end to carpetbaggers misrule in the South.”  Well, the wording on that sign was kind of odd to me.  First of all, Negros was spelled with a little “n” and the word “misrule” and carpetbaggers”…  All of that was strange to me, so I decided to do some research.  And, I realized that 1873 was during a time called, “Reconstruction.”

Now in Louisiana, they didn’t teach us anything about that time period.  It happened right after the Civil War from, say, 1865 to 1874.  So I had to dig deep.  I asked people questions. I went online to see what I could find and what I found was that most of the historians didn’t really like to talk about Reconstruction.  They felt that it was an experiment that failed.  They felt that is was a time when there was a lot of corruption and carpetbaggers from the North and scallywags, which were Southern people who sided with the new government, had ruined the whole thing.  And they also said that it was the worst period in American history.

Well, black people felt like the worst period in history was slavery and that radical reconstruction, well, that was something of a revolutionary idea that was going to help America come into its promise of equality through the idea of public schools and through the idea of civil rights legislation and financial gain.  In 1873, there were probably 2,000 black people that were in office. And there was some amendments.  Like the Thirteenth Amendment, we know was what enabled black people to be free.  And the Fourteenth Amendment brought about civil rights for those enslaved people that were now free.  But the Fifteenth Amendment gave black men the right to vote.

Well, that right to vote was a thorn in the side of the white league, which was a coalition of white men who were determined to maintain white supremacy.  They actually called themselves “The Redeemers” because they were going to redeem the South back to itself.  Well, in 1873, in Colfax, the black majority voted in a government that was going to support them and their needs.  But… the day that the new sheriff was supposed to take office, the ousted sheriff decided that he wasn’t going to give up his power. So he called all of his friends and told them to back him up.  Well, the new sheriff called all of the black men and deputized them and told them to hold the courthouse so that he could go in and do his job.  Well, they held that courthouse because they had visions of a life of equality.  A vision for a future that their children could flourish.

For seven whole days, they tirelessly held that courthouse but on April 13th, Easter Sunday, the white league was not gonna have it anymore.  So three hundred armed white men marched into Colfax and started shooting.  And they shot off a cannon that set the courthouse on fire.  Soon after, there was a white flag that was held in a window as surrender.  And just as the black men started coming out the door, there was a shot and one of the white men was killed and in retaliation, The Redeemers started shooting.  And down came the ideas of a better world, as one by one, those men fell to the ground as they were running out of that burning building. Over two hundred men were killed that day.  About fifty were captured, then walked to the Red River where they were shot and drowned.  And then another fifty were hanged on an oak tree.  Clearly, this was not a riot. Those men laid down their lives so that we could have a better life.  And that was a massacre.

Now in my research, I found over a hundred names listed of the wounded and the killed that day.  And in that list there was some names that might have been part of my family line.  But regardless, all of the men that day were fighting for the rights of all black people. And not just for black people, but for humanity.  For the nation to rise to its fullest potential.  I hope that we all will remember them and hold them up.  Because it was their work that established the work of those who are moving us forward now.

And history books can ignore Colfax and Reconstruction if they want or write it from the perspective of the oppressor.  But by us digging deep into that history, we were able to discover the amazing well of those freed men and fighting for our liberation. And as the Igbo people from Nigeria say, “The lions must create the historians of the tale of the hunter.  The hunted will always be glorified by the hunter.”  My siblings and I will continue to tell the Colfax story from our point of view. And more than that, we will take that legacy and live our lives in a way that we uplift humanity and make the world better for the next generation.

My Life as an Engrish to English Translator: Learning to Accept My Korean Immigrant Mother

 by Storyteller Elizabeth Gomez

Story Summary:

A story about Elizabeth, an “Army brat”, who must navigate the world for her Korean immigrant mother. Through this process she learns to stop being embarrassed by her mother and shifts to fighting for her.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: My-Life-as-an-Engrish-to-English-Translator-Learning-to-Accept-My-Korean-Immigrant-Mother

Discussion Questions:

  1. How many of you are recent immigrants or have immigrant parents?
  2. What are the daily struggles you have or that you see your parents and other family members going through?
  3. If you have immigrant parents, are there times you are embarrassed by them? Can you share examples and reflect on from where the embarrassment comes?
  4. What steps can you take to make you and/or your parents’ transition in America easier?
  5. What do people who have been here longer need to understand and how can they be a support to new immigrants?

Resources:

Learning a New Land by Carola Suarez-Orozco
Korean Immigrants and the Challenge of Adjustment by Moon H. Jo

Themes:

  • Asian Americans/Asians
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European Americans/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Identity
  • Immigration
  • Languages
  • Latino Americans/Latinos
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination

Full Transcript:

Hi, I’m Elizabeth Gomez. It was 1983 in Virginia. I was laying in my room in the dark with the covers over my head listening. She was yelling and I was only nine years old so I wasn’t really sure what to do. My mother and I had been here before, just listening to her struggling and screaming. I pull the covers tighter over my head when I heard, “Risa, Risa, you come here. You come here now!”

As I walked out of my sanctuary, my eyes widen and I slumped into the kitchen. She stood there in a polyester robe with a brown phone dangling from her hand.

“Risa, you speakie to him. He no understanding me.”

I stood there flushed with embarrassment, and took the phone from my mother’s hand, “Hello.”

“Hi, ma’am.”

“Could you just help us get your mom’s account number. We’d really like to help her.”

“Mom. What’s your account number?”

“Oh, you terr him, you terr him, jero-jero-sex-sex-four-eight-sex.”

“It’s 0-0-4-8-6.” (0-0-6-6-4-8-6)

“As I talked to this man, my mom walked around in the kitchen. She was pacing back and forth, getting angrier and angrier. She didn’t understand why Americans didn’t understand her when she spoke to them, especially because she’d been in this country for over a decade. I watched her pace through the kitchen, back and forth, her small Asian frame just blowing in and out, and in and out until she was rounded out like one of those monsters from Where the Wild Things Are.

After I completed the phone call, I hung up. I looked at my mom. This lady demon who was slowly morphing back into this four-foot-something Asian lady.

“Why they don’t understanding? Why don’t understanding me? I speakie good Engrish.”

I watched my mom sit at the kitchen table and I put my hand over hers. I looked at her as her face was beginning to worry and her body started to fill with self-doubt. At that moment, I decided I have… I had to stop. I had to stop running away and hiding and I had to really commit to being her English (Engrish) to Engrish (English) translator for the rest of my life. And it was always like that.

My father was a Puerto Rican-American, U.S. citizen, who served in the military. He met my mother in Seoul, Korea. They married; they had kids. Most of my mom’s life, as a military wife, was traveling abroad and she spent very little time in America. While she was here, she did okay. But when my dad was gone on duty or training missions, my mom had to make her way through and I was rela… relegated to just, basically, being her translator.

I spent tons of time just, like, watching her try to talk to sales people and clerks and merchants, just trying to get what she needed. It was like watching a Charlie Brown episode where the teacher’s talking to Charlie Brown and all Charlie Brown can hear is this muffled sound of nothingness. And I would just stand and watch my mom wave her hands around, and gesticulate, and try to convey what she needed, without being able to tell them in the way that they needed to hear it.

And every time, I’d be broken up with this sound, “Risa, Risa, you terring him, you terring him right now, Risa. You terring him, ‘Me want to buy fridgey.’”

“She wants to buy a fridge.”

“You terring him we need to move to Browning Street.”

“You mean,”

“She wants you to know that we live on Brown Street.”

“You terring him, ‘It’s too expenses’.”

“She means it’s too expensive.”

If that wasn’t bad enough, she named me Elizabeth. She doesn’t even know how to pronounce Elizabeth, so she started calling me Lisa, which she also does not know how to pronounce. In addition to that, my mom would have to go to conferences, like, parent-teacher conferences, and those were the most embarrassing, humiliating, and petrifying moments of my life. There they were, these well-articulated, ecedga… educated teachers looking at my mom with these plastered smiles, just nodding their heads, trying to understand what she was saying.

And my mom is basically screaming at them, trying to convey, “Oh, Risa, she so razy.”

In addition, I couldn’t have any friends. Anyone who came into my house, got pinched by my mother when she would say things like, “Oh, you so fat!” Or, “Oh, why your eyes so big?”

Every single friend I ever made, who came to my house, basically, never came back and I accepted that. That was my life. I was gonna be the town recluse and I always was gonna have this rude mother.

Late one night, I could hear my mom talking to someone on the phone and it was my dad’s new girlfriend. I dropped my blanket and I walked to the wall that separated my room from my mother’s. And I could hear her just softly begging this woman to let my father go. And I heard her say, “Prease, prease go way. We have kids.”

I listened for a long time, and my heart started pounding as I felt for her. And I just listened, as she kept begging and begging. And I didn’t even really like my father and, up ’til that point, I’m not sure I liked my mother that much either. But at this moment, I felt what was going on with her, and I understood that this was painful. And I pressed my head closer against the wall as I listened to her hang up the phone and sob and cry. And I wanted to go to her but I couldn’t. I could just listen. And I did. I listened until I fell asleep to the sounds of what pain was for her.

A few, a few weeks later, after months of not seeing my father, I was really surprised when he came to pick up me and my brother to go to New York and see my grandmother. Not only was I surprised to see him, I was surprised that I was allowed to leave with him.

“I don’t wanna go.”

“Risa, you take good care of Ab-e. You be good girl, okay?”

“No! I don’t want to go.”

“You go.”

As we drove up to New York, my father stopped at a rest stop. He went to go use the phone booth. And as he was in the phone booth, I could tell that he was just being himself – super charming, and laughing, and flirtatious to someone on the phone. Eventually, he started walking toward our car, and I felt a little weird. And I wasn’t sure what was going on. So, he said for us to come over and, uh, talk to this person on the phone. And I pick up the phone and, huh, I hear this voice come over.

“And she says, “Hello, Elizabeth. It’s me, Jane, your dad’s friend. How are you?”

At that moment, all the anguish I had for my mother, the loss of my father, the not understanding of what had been going on with my whole family, this whole entire time came rushing at me. My heart pounded. My ears… like sounds of, like, waves came through my ears. And I felt nothing but anger when I replied, “I know you’re not my father’s friend. You’re his girlfriend! As a matter of fact, you keep calling my house, and I hate you for hurting my mother.”

And I hung up the pho… er, I dropped the phone and I ran back to the car. And I watched as my father, like, fumbled around with this phone and he’s spewing out apologies. And then he comes back to the car, he slams the door shut, and smacks me across my face. And he starts talking, just talking about something or another, and I have no idea what he’s saying because I don’t care. I just didn’t care.

All I knew was that, at that moment, I had been able to tell this woman the things that my mom wanted to say to her. And in some small way, this 9-year-old was able to score a big point for my mother.

After our trip was over, we came home. I could hear my mom and my dad arguing out in the front porch about this or that or what the kids knew or didn’t know. And I was pretty sure as I was standing in the kitchen, that when my mom came back, she was gonna spank me or discipline me for re… disrespecting my father. Instead, she walked in with these bloodshot eyes, mascara tears dried on her cheeks. She looked at me. She made me a bowl of hot ramen noodle soup. She smiled and then she went back into her bedroom.

I still translate for her to this very day, especially with my own family. I mean, huh, we’re still not used to the idea that when you get pinched, and to be told, “You’re fat,” that that actually means, “Hey, are you hungry?”

We’ve learned to communicate in ways of, like, laughter and shared experiences and gestures. And now, when my mom asks my husband and I if we’ve bought a condom, I know she means condo.

Standing on the Wall of Derry: An Irish American Confronts the Irish Conflict

by Margaret Burk

Story Summary:

Finding herself on a historical tour of the Wall of Derry in Northern Ireland, Margaret discovers within herself that she is holding on to an ancestral hostility, the kind of hostility that perpetuates hatred, violence and war.  Is this who she wants to be?

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Standing-on-the-Wall-of-Derry-An-Irish-American-Confronts-the-Irish-Conflict

Discussion Questions:

  1. Are there prejudices you hold that come from your family?
  2. Has hearing another person’s story or getting to know them ever changed how you feel about that person?
  3. Has an unexpected experience ever surprisingly changed the way you think or feel?
  4. What does Margaret mean that the Irish conflict wasn’t just about religion? How is the Irish conflict similar and different from other civil wars?
  5. What do you think of the words Martin Luther King Jr. If we are to have peace on earth…our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation. And this means we must develop a world perspective.”
  6. What do you think of the words of the Dalai Lama XIV, “Peace does not mean an absence of conflicts; differences will always be there. Peace means solving these differences through peaceful means; through dialogue, education, knowledge; and through humane ways.”

Resources:

The Fight for Peace: The Secret Story Behind the Irish Peace Process by Eamonn Mallie and David McKittrick – The most detailed and authoritative account of the road to the Good Friday Agreement. A classic of its kind by two of Northern Ireland’s finest.

Trinity by Leon Uris – Gives the background to the ancient conflict between the trinity of nationalists, unionists and ‘Brits’ that painted Ireland’s history in blood.

The Faithful Tribe: An Intimate Portrait of the Loyal Institutions by Ruth Dudley Edwards – A Dublin Catholic goes Ulster native to produce a sympathetic and understanding portrayal of Protestant prisoners of history.

Ten Men Dead: The Story of the 1981 Hunger Strike by David Beresford – The Iron Lady (Prime Minister Thatcher) versus the Iron Men, with short-term victory for Thatcher and a long-term victory for the Provos.

Galway Bay by Mary Pat Kelly – The Great Starvation and the emigration from Ireland.

1916: A Novel of the Irish Rebellion by Morgan Llywelyn

 Bloody Sunday (2002) a movie that tells the story of one of the most significant moments of The Troubles, the 1972 shootings in Derry, from the perspective of a key participant – Ivan Cooper, the leader of a movement to achieve a united Ireland through non-violent means.

Across the Divide in Northern Ireland (2016) In this movie, a Catholic and a Protestant girl swap school uniforms in a fine short film produced as part of a project to teach children about the Irish Civil War called “The Troubles”

Selma (2015) This movie depicts Dr. Martin Luther King’s nonviolent march from Selma to Montgomery, which eventually culminated in President Lyndon Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The Belfast Project: An Overview Peace, Justice, and Oral Historyhttp://www.democraticprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Belfast_Project-ENG-version.pdf
http://lj.libraryjournal.com/2015/03/litigation/boston-college-oral-history-project-faces-ongoing-legal-issues/#

Our Shared Futurehttps://northernireland.foundation

Themes:

Crossing Cultures
Education and Life Lessons
European Americans/Whites
Family and Childhood
Identity
Stereotypes & discrimination
Taking a Stand and Peacemaking
War

Full Transcript:

My name is Margaret Burk and this is a story about an experience I had on a trip to Ireland in 2013. I was standing on top of the stone wall 20 feet high and 20 feet wide, that surrounds the old part of the city of Derry, in Northern Ireland. I didn’t want to be here, in Northern Ireland. I had signed up for a tour that advertised visiting sites in southern Ireland only. I’m an Irish American, I have always wanted to come to Ireland, Southern Ireland, home of my ancestors. So, what was I doing in Northern Ireland? You have to understand that Ireland is divided into two countries. Southern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland, is free and independent. And Northern Ireland is part of Great Britain. Our tour directors decided that we had to take this historical tour of the wall of Derry because they heard the guide was fabulous. “No, I protested. Northern Ireland was not on our itinerary.”

I was actually surprised at the intensity of my emotions, as this ancestral anger rose up. And then. and then, it was like I was 12 years old again and the memories just came flooding back. And me and my cousins were sitting at the feet of Uncle Tom listening to his stories. Uncle Tom had emigrated from Ireland and married my Aunt Mabel and joined the Terre Haute, Indiana Irish Curly Clan, my family. He had come from Ireland shortly after the war of independence in 1921 that divided Ireland into south and north.

At family gatherings, birthdays, holidays, after dinner, we’d sing Irish songs. And then we kids would beg Uncle Tom to tell us stories true stories of Irish history. My mom told stories about the lives of the saints but Tom told stories about battles and villains and heroes. And whether he was telling about the rebellion of 1789 or the fight for Vinegar Hill or the Battle of the Boyne, I loved them all. The stories about Irish fighting for their freedom from English rule. Uncle Tom was a gentle, soft-spoken man but when he settled into his chair to tell, he changed; his jaw tighten, his fist clenched, and his face reddened with the anger of it.

And that’s just how my body felt when we were talking about going into Northern Ireland. But I was outvoted. I sulked in the back of the van as we crossed the border from Southern Ireland to Northern Ireland. I felt like I was betraying my family. The weather echoed my mood. Cool, cloudy, and drizzling.

When the tour of the wall of Derry began, I hung out in the back of the crowd and the guide, Martin McCrossan, 60’s, baldish, ruddy complexion, had a voice as loud as a carnival barker.

“This wall was built in 1601 by the first English settlers to protect themselves against the attacking displaced locals.”

My neck, red, “Displaced locals. I’ll show you a displaced local.”

Those were Irish people who had had their land stolen by the invading Brits. Uncle Tom had told me the stories. How British armies ravaged the land, British laws in power impoverished the people, I knew the stories. And then, Martin hurried us out a hundred yards down the wall, to the side of an old church outside the wall. St. Colum’s. And then he pointed to the backyard of the church, where there was this odd hill. It was like a grassy mound, like 12 or 15 feet tall, in a space, not much bigger than my backyard, in Oak Park, Illinois.

“1689. This church was the stronghold for the Irish forces trying to gain back the city of Derry from the English settlers. The siege lasted for 105 days. But the Irish couldn’t breach this wall. Three thousand Irish died outside the wall, 6,000 English inside the wall, mostly of starvation. That mound is the burial place of the dead.”

Huh. Six thousand English died? Starvation? I looked at the cross on top of the mound and thought of the dead on both sides. I knew many of the English settlers were poor peasant farmers who had come with the hope of a better life. I thought of the women and the children. I’d never heard stories of the English side. Then, Martin directed us down the wall to our next stop, that, which was near a tree. The rain was intensified and I thought, “Was he oblivious to the rain?” I called out, “You know, we can just listen from underneath this tree over here.”

He turned and looked at me, not harsh but firm, and said, “No, you have to stand over here,” and waited patiently until I complied.

Pointing to the hole in the wall, down, he said, “Bloody Sunday, January 13th, 1972. Ten thousand Catholics, supporting the movement for a unified Ireland without English rule, and inspired by the civil rights movements of the United States, were marching peacefully on that street below. English toops… troops shot into the crowd killing, injuring, starting the violent civil war between the Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland that lasted for 26 years.”

Hmm. I, I remember. I watched that on TV. It was bad. But the fight wasn’t about religion, it was political. It was about who ruled, who made the laws, who owned industry, who could get a job. And Martin pointed across the way to a mural. A mural that, that was the whole side of a six-story building. It was of young, school girl. She had like, you know, shoulder length, black hair and a white blouse, a green skirt.

“Twelve-year-old Annette McGavigan, the 100th person killed in the conflict caught in the crossfire between the opposing sides.” And then Martin spoke more slowly and I could hear the emotion in his voice as he said, “That rifle beside the girl, when the mural was painted in the midst of a conflict, that rifle was pointing down – a call for peace. And that butterfly above her head. It was only an outline-a sign of hope. And when the peace agreement was finally signed in 1989, and the violence ended, the artist repainted that mural. Now that rifle is broken into two pieces and the butterfly is painted with all the colors of the rainbow.” He paused to let us take it in. A six-story mural, a young school girl, a rifle broken in two, a rainbow-colored butterfly.

“Come,” Martin said. And he led us through an opening in the wall, down a few steps, into the back door of St. Augustine Church. The social hall was, was filled with weaving looms and women busily weaving. And on the wall, were hung like a dozen, three foot by five foot exquisite murals.

Mary Cullum explained proudly, “These tapestries tell that the history of Derry and were given one to every church and civic organization, Protestant and Catholic, even to the Orangemen.” I knew that the Orangemen still lead a parade provocatively through the Catholic section of Derry every year on July 12th.

But for these weavers, it was important that everyone, even the Orangemen, knew the history of Derry from all sides. As we ended the tour outside St. Augustine’s, on the on the stone patio, Martin looked at every one of us and spoke with heart felt emotion. “Thank you,” he said. “Thank you for coming to Derry. You are part of our peace process. Go home tell your friends and your family to come and to know our story.”

“Am I part of the peace process?” I thought. I didn’t want to come here. I didn’t want to hear these stories. But now that I had, I, I discovered I was holding onto an old hostility that had been passed down to me. But the people here were trying to move on, to build something that we all want – a place to live together peacefully. And I could feel Uncle Tom’s stories mixing with these new stories, creating possibilities in me. Possibilities for new ways of thinking and new ways of feeling. Hmm… And that is the path to peace.

A Brilliant Day: A Dutch Woman’s Courageous Travels in Nazi Occupied Holland

by Peter R. LeGrand

Story Summary:

This story weaves present day observations with the true accounts of Peter’s grandmother, a Dutch Jew, and the incredible journeys she went through during the time of Nazi occupied Holland during World War II. As Peter takes a bike ride along Chicago’s lakefront, observing the ease and comfort of modern day life, he remembers his grandmother’s stories of the dangers of riding a bicycle across rural Holland to secure food for her husband and children. The contrasts of modern living are highlighted against the fears of appearing in public as a Jew during the war.

For a print friendly version, click here:  A-Brilliant-Day-A-Dutch-Womans-Courageous-Travels-in-Nazi-Occupied-Holland

Discussion questions:

  1. It has been discussed that current U.S. politics have re-awakened themes related to the Holocaust. Some of these themes are, but are not limited to: racial profiling, racial prejudice, and racial superiority. In light of the story presented here, do you agree with this premise? Why or why not?
  2. How are different groups in the United States classified through stereotypes? How do stereotypes exert power just as the Star of David was used as a means of control?
  3. The Germans have not been the only country to use racial profiling in their history. For example, during World War II, the United States employed internment camps for people of Japanese descent while the United States fought a war against the country of Japan. This resulted in a sudden and severe segregation of Japanese American citizens during the war.  Discuss what factors might go into a country’s or society’s decision making in using such tactics. How can we guard against such things? Are tactics like this being used today?
  4. Discuss the relevance of the Holocaust experience to modern life today. Points to consider: A. Is a modern-day Holocaust possible? B. If so, how would this take place? C. Could modern technology (Cellular phones, Internet, etc.,) contribute to or prevent such a reoccurrence? D.  Is the war on terror an influence here? E. Has a modern-day Holocaust already occurred, or is one occurring in the world now?
  5. Are poverty and lack of education factors in race relations? Why or why not? What factors contribute to negative race relations and even genocide? What factors contribute to positive race relations?
  6. Do you see solutions to problems raised by the questions above? In whatever way that is most powerful to you, (Art, music, writing, story telling, etc..,) present what you see as a problem and any solutions you see. Try to back up your solutions factually if possible.

Resources:

The Missing Stories by Elise Dubois, Copyright 2008, by GigaBoek.nl
A Brilliant Day by Peter R. LeGrand, Copyright 2016.

Themes:

  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Jewish American/Jews

Full Transcript:

My name is Peter Robert LeGrand and this is a story that I’ve been lucky enough to tell about my amazing family.

It’s a brilliant summer day in Chicago in 2016. And when I look down, I can see my feet turning the pedals on my bike in a satisfying rhythm as we make our way down the lakefront trail. I’m with a group of friends and as we go, we can see groups of picnickers are set up along the lake with their grills. There’s endless mounds of cooking meat and other foods and the smell is so potent you can just about wrap yourself in it. It’s like a coat of flavor that we are slowly riding past as we go. We hear music of every kind as we moved down the bike trail. And after a little while, we stop for a few minutes near some folks who are playing Samba music. One of our riders and his girlfriend jump off their bikes and they start dancing to the music, immediately. Moving back and forth, arms and hips, and music all coming together in one continuous flow. After a few moments of this, they jump back on their bikes and off we go down the lakefront trail.

My thoughts start turning to my grandmother. Who, some 70 years ago, took a series of bike rides of her own during the war. I recall her telling me about these rides and thinking to myself, what an amazingly, brave thing to do. But she, herself, said it really wasn’t a question of courage. It was just something that you had to do. It was winter. The last winter of the war and life was very hard. The Germans had taken over almost every aspect of life in Nazi occupied Holland. It was very difficult to come by almost anything there. And as a result, even food was very difficult to get. That last winter of the war was called De Honger Winter or The Winter of Hunger. As I said, food was very hard to get. My mother used to speak about how my grandmother would take a small tin of coffee, one that we might use just in a week’s time, and make it last for months. And by the end of it, she said, it will be nothing more than brown colored water. My grandparents received ration coupons for food during the war. This included bread. My grandfather used to say that they chopped up straw and baked it right into the bread. It was so bad. My mother recalls that the straw would even stick in your throat when you ate it.

Some 12 miles away from where my grandparents and my mother lived was another family member who was a baker. My grandmother set out one day on her bike to retrieve and get some bread for her family and two other families. She hid when she saw German patrols. The Germans would use almost any pretense to arrest you. And they all lived in constant fear and awareness of curfews. And just if they were violated, you could be arrested and taken to jail. Simply walking down the street was cause for fear. But on this trip, she was able to get some bread for herself and families and return home safely. A few months later, she set out on another ride farther away with more risk. This time my grandmother was asked to take seed supplies to another family who was also, of another family member, who was also a baker.

As dangerous as it was for her to do this, it had become even more dangerous for my grandfather to be out in public. By this time, the Germans had been rounding up all able bodied men to help in labor camps promoting the Germans war effort. It was dangerous in German occupied countries for non-Jewish men. Even more dangerous, at times, than for Jewish people. Labor camps were places that Germans had started to produce war materials to support their war efforts and being in one of these camps was known to be almost as dangerous as being a Jew. My grandfather, on my father’s side, was actually taken to one of these camps and he was only one of 11 people who was able to escape. And he only escaped because he bribed his way out of this camp. So while my grandmother was out trying to get food for my family, my grandfather was avoiding being captured by hiding in a dirt-filled space under the floorboards of the living room in their house.

All the time I was growing up, I never heard my grandfather speak of these things. He was a very quiet, thoughtful man, who never really made a fuss about much of anything. I heard all of these stories from my mother. I try to imagine him, underneath the floorboards of his living room. Not making a motion, not able to hear anything, only vague noises from maybe my mother walking to and from the front window where she was to look-out for German soldiers. He couldn’t see anything and he had to lay in this unnerving quiet. Was this simply a prelude to some shouting and banging on the front door announcing the arrival of German soldiers?  What would they think if they saw that there was a small child, my mother, at home with no parents around?  Would he have to listen to the Germans searching his house? Would it be worse to lay in the dark, not being able to see your enemy or would it be better to be out in the open to see him coming? On top of all this laying in the dark, worrying about his wife who is out in the world. In a dangerous world that they lived in with no peace of mind for any of them. I now understand all the better that my mother used to say after Hitler, “Everything else was easier.”

So I was riding along on that summer day in Chicago, thinking of my grandmother as she rode trying to find food when I passed a woman who was guiding a decked out bike with cargo bags, a red bike. And she’s talking on her cell phone and I can hear her as I ride slowly by.  “Yeah. Going to go to a party later. Maybe stop and get some wine and cheese. I’m thinking about going to a yoga class, maybe have a nap.”  My grandmother’s bike not only didn’t have cargo bar bags it didn’t even have two good tires. After the successful trip said she had taken, she set out on another trip. Even farther away on a borrowed bike.

This bike had one good tire, the other tire being what was called the hard tire. It had a garden hose wrapped around the rim with just pieces of wire to hold it in place. After some four hours of riding on this bike with one good tire, she arrived at a cousin’s house out in the country. In addition to the cousin’s family that were in the house, there was another five people who were either Dutch Resistance or Jews or maybe both. They were all in hiding in that house and they were all wanted by the Germans. My grandmother was invited to stay for dinner. And some 40 years later, she wrote in her diary about this meal that she had. We had delicious tomato soup with meat and meat balls and a pot roast and stewed apples and really good boiled potatoes with delicious brown gravy. And afterwards for dessert, we had rice pudding with delicious berry sauce. “I had not eaten like that in years,” she wrote in her diary.

My mother and father used to talk frequently about food after the war. After the war, the allied forces dropped food from the air to get food in quickly to the people who had been liberated. My mother used to talk about the bread that was dropped in. And she would close her eyes and she put her hand over her chest and she would talk about it. And I could see that she was back in that exact moment reliving the taste of that fresh bread that was dropped to them after the war. And when I read my grandmothers diary, I can tell that she was reliving that same tomato soup meal that she had as well.

That summer day when we were about 10 miles from downtown Chicago, we stopped at a rest stop along the lake where there was a snack bar. And I stopped and I looked at the menu, which is painted in big cartoon, almost garish, colors. There’s roast beef sandwiches, and there’s Polish hotdogs, and there’s onions, and there’s French fries, and there’s nachos, and there’s potato chips, and ice cream. And I watch the kids come up to the snack bar and grab their treats and eagerly run back for more playtime on the beach as they’re eating.

After that dinner of tomato soup that my grandmother had, she was given a large bundle of food: rice, butter, flour, things that they couldn’t get in the city.  And on the way home, she stopped and traded a pair of my grandfather’s pants for some wheat that she carried home in her backpack. After my grandmother pedaled home that day, she would… worried that she would not make it home in time for curfew that the Nazis set. If she was discovered, the German patrols were known to attack and steal and take everything you had. There was no fear of reprisals against the soldiers. But luckily, and astoundingly, after some 50 miles of riding, she made it home that day before the curfew. She and all of her precious packages of food were safe. My grandmother took that same trip several times before the end of the war. Riding slowly, with one good bike tire, on a borrowed bike, carrying precious food home but carrying much worry as well.

I rode some more that day under that beautiful blue sky and finally at the end of the lakefront trail, I said goodbye to my friends and I turned myself north to head home onto the train. I’d ridden that day about the same distance that my grandmother rode. But I would never match the true distance that she rode that day.  She wrote that she admired the bravery of others that she met on her rides. That all the while, while she’s dodging German patrols and bombings from the British, and all the while avoiding patrols and ducking into the woods if she was seen. Racing against the clock. And every moment of her rides was the one thing that set her apart from all others, that she did all of these rides with the bright, yellow Star of David sewn to her coat for all to see. I pedaled home, each turn of the wheels along the path, every turn, a reminder of those long ago bike rides and the woman who described herself as a woman of little courage.

Stand Up! Redlining During the Great Migration and Marching in Marquette Park with Dr. Martin Luther King

by Storyteller Mama Edie McLoud Armstrong

Story Summary:

Take the journey with 14-year old Mama Edie as she relives her 1966 experience of marching through the violent streets of Marquette Park in Chicago, Illinois with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Ride the back of the train “up north” in the “Negro section” during the Great Migration from the slave south in search of a better life to only find the practices of “redlining” and Jim Crow blocking your way to a better life for your family.  NOW take a serious look at someone who would tell you to “just get over it.”  How do you heal?

50 years later, Mama Edie was in Marquette Park again to commemorate the original march!

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Stand-Up-Redlining-During-the-Great-Migration-and-Marching-in-Marquette-Park-with-Dr-Martin-Luther-King

Discussion Questions:

  1. What was the “Great Migration”? What were its benefits and its dangers?
  2. Discuss the differences between people who immigrate to another country in relative comfort with their own names, belongings, family members, languages, religions and freedom to practice their own cultural ways and those who immigrate by force in deplorable conditions, stripped of clothing, dignity, names, respect, family, land, religion, language and where the practice of one’s cultural ways may even be punishable by death. How might people’s lives evolve over many generations depending upon their first step away from home?
  3. Why was the march held in Marquette Park in 1966 with Dr. King significant and did it only benefit African Americans? Was its impact felt only in Chicago?
  4. Imagine how you think you might feel if you had been a Black person who was not allowed to buy housing in many parts of Chicago? What impact would it have had to be told where you and your family could and couldn’t live?
  5. Imagine how you think you might have felt as a White person on those streets of Marquette Park. Write a short essay about it. What were whites fighting for or against? What kind of information did they have or not have? Describe what happened while you were there, what you saw, what you heard and how it made you feel. Address how it makes you feel now about yourself, your own culture and about African Americans and their lives today, whether you are African American or not.
  6. How does a person become open and sensitive enough to understand someone else’s feelings or situation? What makes a person care enough to let go of ego, judgment and fear and want to listen and learn?
  7. When you see injustice, when is it time to stand up? Consider one scenario of injustice and describe how you might go about addressing it. How can you safely affect a positive change?

Resources:

Article on The Great Migration and its socio-political and economic evolution from 1916 to 1970: http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/great-migration

IMAN (Inner-City Muslim Network), a collaboration of intercultural and interfaith groups who have worked together to improve the quality of life for people in the Marquette Park Community.  This organization spearheaded the 50th anniversary commemoration of the Marquette Park march: http://www.mlkmemorialchicago.org/

Redlining – This link guides the reader to a digitally interactive map describing the existence and “reasons” for redlining, the discriminatory practice of limiting housing opportunities and related services for so-called minorities across the country.
http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/10/19/498536077/interactive-redlining-map-zooms-in-on-americas-history-of-discrimination

Themes:

  • African Americans/Africans
  • Civil Rights Movement
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Housing/Neigborhoods
  • Taking a Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

My name is Edie McLoud Armstrong. It was August 5th, 1966 that I was 15 years old. I remember waking up feeling so excited. I was joyful, a little bit scared, and brave, all at the same time. I’d never felt quite that way before. I remember, as I was eating my breakfast, I was deep in my own thoughts. And my father had made me this wonderful breakfast of bacon and eggs, and toast, and fresh, squeezed orange juice. But as I was eating, I kept replaying in my mind the newscasts that my parents and I had been watching over the previous days and weeks, that were leading up to this very special time. You see, there was going to be a march in Marquette Park, one of the neighborhoods on the southwest side of Chicago. And this was one of the areas where they used the practice of redlining, which was intended to keep African-Americans and other, so-called minorities from the housing market.

Well, this was going to be a bit of a problem because this was also right in through with the time of the Great Migration. And the Great Migration took place roughly between 1914 and the 1970s. And this was a time when waves of African-Americans were coming from the slave south. They were trying to escape situations like the lynchings. Those Sunday afternoon, after church, kind of lynchings, where men, women, and even children sometimes were hung from trees. They were trying to escape church and home bombings. They were trying to escape the Jim Crow laws that barred them from restaurants, restrooms, from playgrounds, and swimming pools, and churches, and in movie theaters, and play theaters, where even they performed but they weren’t allowed to go and enjoy them. They were coming to northern cities and western cities, both big and small, in search for a better life. But it was difficult.

For one thing, they needed to find someplace to live. So, when they came to a city, for example, like Chicago, and many of them actually managed to get enough money to ride the train in the colored section, or the negro section, which was actually right behind the engine. Now, that might sound kind of exciting but in that section, that’s where the soot and the ash came. So, you got these people dressed in their Sunday finest. And they had to sit in an area where they knew that they would probably just have their wonderful clothes all dirtied up but they didn’t care about that. And they had their lunches packed in shoe boxes and brown paper sacks, sometimes even including a loving piece of homemade pound cake. They were on their way to find a better life.

But, again, they needed somewhere to live. Now, in cities like Chicago, there were many neighborhoods where people only wanted as neighbors, people who looked like them. So, when the African-Americans were coming in droves, I mean they were really coming, there was so many that they ended up crowding into areas that were getting quickly overcrowded. And the services, the landowners, were no longer providing the services to maintain the hygiene and the safety that they once did. Even the trash, the trash wasn’t getting picked up on a regular basis. And so, the communities ended up turning into what we now call slums.

Now, it was an easy thing to try to blame the residents for the conditions that were allowed to take place. But churches, like Quinn Chapel, were very, very instrumental in helping the African-Americans find someplace to live. They found them little tenement places and sometimes they were able to rent a room or they got little kitchenettes, until they could find a place of their own and send for their families to join them. So, there was a lot of support there. And that was a good thing because in other communities, for example, in Marquette Park where that march was going to take place, that was a neighborhood where African-Americans only went through in order to get to Midway Airport. Because it was very clear that we were not local there.

Hmm. So, the day came. The day of the march. And Dr. Martin Luther King had been invited to Chicago to lead that march. Now, some of the nuns from my elementary school in Inglewood, St. Carthage, had asked some of our parents if they could escort us to that march. That was kind of a risky thing for a parent, especially my father, who was from Georgia, who knew about what life could be like. But they prayed on it and they decided to let me go. And I’m really, really glad they did because I felt like it was my turn to stand up for justice. And I wanted so much to do that and to do a good job.

Well, what happened was that, that morning after I finished eating, I went to my mother’s room to say goodbye and she started asking me all the practical things. She looked at me and she said, “Now, now, did you, did you pack your lunch?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Did you get your jacket because you know it’s going to be a little bit chilly out there later on?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Now, did your father give you a little piece change?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

And she was just asking me all these questions. But then she said, “Now, Edith, stay alert and make sure you stay right close to the nuns and to your other friends. And make sure that you don’t look in their faces. Don’t look in their eyes. They don’t like that because they’ll think that you’re challenging them.”

“Yes, ma’am.” I had never heard that before. And so, my father even though St. Carthage was only like two blocks away, he insisted on driving me to school that day. He talked quietly with the nuns off to the side for a while and then when it was time for him to go to the car, he turned and he looked at me. And he came and gave me a big hug.

And he just gave me a quiet smile that said, ‘I’m proud of you, girl.” It didn’t even need any words. And so, he got in his car and he was gone.

And within minutes, we were on this specially chartered bus. They were maybe about 20 of us. And while we were going along, we were kind of chatting and, and, and joking even a little bit, trying to break the tension because we were nervous. We didn’t really know what to expect. None of us had ever had an experience like this before. But then, as we got closer to where the march was taking place, we started hearing the crowd. The noise of the crowd, the voices were getting louder and louder. And we heard these angry shouts and these chats. And we looked out the windows and we saw people throwing their fists up into the air. And we could just imagine what was coming out of their mouths. And suddenly, we weren’t real sure if we actually wanted to get off that bus.

But then we knew we did because it was our turn. Our ancestors had marched. They had died. They had struggled for hundreds of years. It was just our turn. So finally, it was time to get off the bus. And as we were moving towards the street where the marchers were, I suddenly felt like I was in an old movie where we were being led to the Lion’s Den, with these throngs of angry people on both sides of us surrounding us. I searched the crowds on both sides and there were no kind faces there.

And as we continued to walk down the street, I remember there was one particular woman who came up to me. A mother. She was shorter than I was and she began to curse me right up in my face. And then her young son who looked to be maybe about nine years old, he came up and started cursing me too. I had never even heard a little boy curse like that before.

I’d never looked into the face of hate. I saw it that day and it was ugly and it hurt. But I was frozen stiff. I was so shocked with the way I was being accosted. I just stood there and so finally, one of the nuns came to get me. She got my hand and she guided me. I don’t even remember which nun it was but it didn’t matter. All I knew was that I wasn’t going to let go of that hand. And as we made our way to the rest of our friends and to the other nuns, we continued to move forward. And, and I still heard the jeering crowds but all of a sudden, the intensity of that jeering, of their sounds, began to become a little bit muted. Because suddenly, I started hearing the san… song of the marchers up in the front. And the sound was getting louder and louder. And they were singing the song, “We shall overcome, we shall overcome. Someday.”

And I feel that somehow, through the music, we did overcome. There was a lot that we’ve overcome. There’s a lot that we have yet to overcome but we on our way. I cannot give up hope on this country. I will not accept that this country is hopelessly adolescent, and le… and bigoted. That there is no chance for us to heal. That healing is already taking place. And in fact, there was a celebration on August 5th, 2016 that honored the 50th celebration, the 50th anniversary of that march in 1966, again, in Marquette Park and I was there.

I had been invited as a special guest along with other people who had also been there 50 years ago. And when I went over there, I can still feel some of that hate floating in the air. Wasn’t as intense this time but I could feel it. It was, it was like a ghost that didn’t want to go away. A spirit that didn’t want to rest. It’s still there but is starting to dissipate.

And I’m grateful for that. And this time, a very special treat was that I was able to march this time with my sister storyteller, and friend, Susan O’Halloran, who is the producer of these videos. Now 50 years ago, Susan was 15 too. (Sue, I hope you don’t mind me telling your age, girl.) But anyway, she wouldn’t have been able to march with me at that time because she lived in one of those red lining neighborhoods. So, her parents wouldn’t have allowed it. But now here we were.

I called her up and said, “Girl, you would not believe what’s happening. You got to be there.” And so, the organizers of the march, they contacted her, and we were able to march side by side. There were poets and songs and speeches by people like Reverend Jesse Jackson, Senator Jackie Collins, who I went to St. Carthage with. There was Rabbi Capers Funny. There was Brother Rami Nashashibi, who’s the executive director of the IMAN, which is the Inner-city Muslim Action Network that spearheaded this great celebration. This was an intercultural, interfaith collaboration of people who knew, that we had it in us, to make this country live up to what it purports to be, what it promises to be. That we’re here to require that it fulfill the commitment of truly being the land of the free and the home of the brave. And I’m just grateful I was there.

Surviving and Thriving: When Racism Destroyed 1920s Black Wall Street in Tulsa Oklahoma

by Shanta Nurullah

Story Summary:

This family story describes Shanta’s father and grandparents’ escape from the 1921 Tulsa Oklahoma Massacre. Shanta’s grandfather, a tailor, was forced to flee with his family to Chicago where he was able to re-establish his business.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Surviving-and-Thriving-When-Racism-Destroyed-1920s-Black-Wall-Street-in-Tulsa-Oklahoma-template

Discussion Questions:

  1. What attitudes and choices led to the burning of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma?
  2. Why do people move away from home, leaving everyone and everything behind?
  3. Does your family share any migration stories?
  4. Had you heard of times and places where Black people were the wealthiest? Why or why not do you think?
  5. What are the keys to people being able to live peacefully in the same town or community?

Resources:

Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 by Scott Ellsworth and John Hope Franklin
The Burning: Massacre, Destruction, and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 by Tim Madigan

Themes:

  • African American/Blacks
  • European Americans/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Housing/Neighborhoods
  • Stereotypes & Discrimination
  • Taking a Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name is Shanta. I’d like to tell you a family story. This story involves my father, Simeon Neal, Jr. who was born August 31, 1920. He was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma where his father, Simeon, Sr. had a tailor shop. The shop was on Greenwood Avenue, which in Tulsa was called Black Wall Street because there were so many thriving and successful businesses along that street and in the area around that street. There were also hundreds of homes in which most of the black people in Tulsa lived. Now, the year after my father was born, in 1921, on May 3rd, the first and incident occurred that changed the lives of everyone in Tulsa basically forever.

There was a young black man who worked downtown shining shoes in front of the Drexel building. And because segregation was very much in force in Tulsa, at that time, any black person who worked downtown or in that area had limited options when it came to just doing something like going to the bathroom. So, this young man, his name was Dick Rowland, when away from his shoeshine station to use the washroom and he was allowed to go only on the top of the, the top floor of the Drexel Building. In order to use the bathroom, and in order to get there, he had to take an elevator. And the elevators in 1921 were not like the elevators that we’re used to where you just go in and press, press the button for your floor and you’d you taken to your destination. At that time there was always an elevator operator, who either controlled the elevator with, with a lever, like you might have seen in the cable cars of San Francisco, or with a wheel that would actually propel the elevator up or bring it back down. So the elevator operator on this day, May 31st, in the Drexel Building, was a young white woman whose name was Sarah Page. Now, the story doesn’t say exactly what happened.  We don’t know for sure. But when Dick Rowland went into that elevator, he either stumbled and fell into Sarah, or accidentally or maybe even on purpose, touched her. But by the time he made it back down to his shoeshine station, a rumor had started that he had assaulted Sarah and that was just not allowed. It was not allowed for a black man to touch a white woman even if he was a young boy. The penalty for doing such a thing was usually death. Sometimes ya get arrested before you die but usually you would be strung up and lynched, which was a practice that was very prevalent in the south for a long time. And we weren’t even exactly in the south but it was Oklahoma. It was segregation. A black man cannot touch a white woman.

So white folks started gathering for the lynching that was going to take place because Dick Rowland had so-called assaulted Sarah Page. And it got to be such a big deal, as lynchings often were. Sometimes whole families would come out. People would have picnics. There was even a town where lynchings occurred on every Friday. But in Tulsa, on that day, the word spread so far that it reached the Greenwood Avenue District and the black people came to try to save him from what was surely going to be his fate.

Now, this was shortly after World War I and lots of the men who lived in the Greenwood Avenue District had been soldiers, had been fighters, and they still had that warrior spirit. So they went downtown to rescue Dick Roland and make sure that he was not killed for what might have just been an accident. The people who were intent on lynching Dick Rowland were armed and the black men were armed. Some with guns or rifles, others with sticks, bats, bricks, whatever they could get their hands on, and a big battle actually ensued between the white men and the black men. As the battle spread, the black men started retreating toward the Greenwood Avenue District and the white men followed. And when they got close to the area where black people lived, they started setting fires. And one burning building led to another burning building, to another one.

And the white men who had set those fires would not even let the fire department in to put the fires out. So Greenwood Avenue went up in flames. Burning not only the businesses, but the homes around it and the fire was getting close to Grandpa Neal’s tailor shop. He had one customer, a white man, who had a horse and wagon and he offered to save my grandfather and his family by hiding them under the hay in that wagon. So if you could imagine, not having any time to gather up your belongings or your precious photographs or mementos or even clothes. If you could imagine, Grandpa Neal and his wife Susan, their, their daughter of three or four year old, four years old Marjorie and my father who was less than a year old, gathering them up, hiding them under the hay in this wagon, and leaving town just to survive. And it was a good thing that they did that because hundreds of people were killed on that two day spree of fires and gunshots and death and destruction. Between May 31st and June 1st hundreds of people, hundreds of businesses destroyed.

Now Grandpa and his family made it to St. Louis, initially, but really couldn’t get a hold on establishing themselves there. So they went to Chicago next. And Grandpa Neal was able to establish another tailor shop.  This time on 47th Street, which was a prosperous business district in Chicago at that time. And I remember visiting that shop and Grandpa Neal was still making suits. But he would also sell men’s accessories, shirts, ties, socks. And I remember playing with, with the socks of the sock drawer. That was one of the things I would do while the adults were talking.

But more than that I remember how vibrant and exciting 47th Street was with, you know, music clubs and places to eat, all types of businesses. And it’s those memories that become really in stark contrast to the 47th Street of today, although there is an effort to bring things back. There are so many vacant lots where, where businesses used to be. There are so many boarded up buildings where families used to live. And that poses the question of why? Why…Why does one community thrive when another one goes down? I don’t have all of those answers but I have a, a night…What is this year? 2016…Example that could, could in a way, shed some light on that.

There’s this grocery chain called Mariano’s. I’m calling out names now. But when a few years ago, when the Dominick’s chain went out, it went into bankruptcy, and went out of business, their stores were, the court order was, that they couldn’t sell all of their stores to just one of the grocery, grocer. They had to divide that between at least two or three different concerns. So Jewel got some of the buildings and Mariano’s, which was just an up and coming chain at that time, got the other buildings. So there was this strip on 71st Street and Jeffrey, still on the South Side of Chicago, where there was a Dominick’s. And years later now, three or four years later, no grocery chain has, has moved into that building. But Mariano’s finally opened on King’s Drive and Oakwood Boulevard. While this one Mariano’s was being built, on the north side Mariano’s stores were popping up literally everywhere. I mean, any time you would drive any distance on the north side of Chicago, you see yet another Mariano’s. Now why is it that the North Side can have, at this point, probably 10 or 15 of these grocery stores and it took years for the South Side to get only one. Happenstance… or intentional? You tell me.

Black & White: Stereotypes and Privilege

by Storyteller Diggsy Twain

Discussion Questions:

  1. What would you do if you were in Diggsy’s place on the train? Would you get involved? What if you were the White woman or another passenger?
  2. Does your answer change if the passengers are black or white?
  3. What does it mean to you when the storyteller says “I realized Jason was white?”
  4. Do black people have to take on stereotypes? What stereotypes are made about white people?
  5. In what ways did the storyteller stereotype his white classmate?
  6. How are stereotypes about Diggsy and his white friends different? Why are the stereotypes different?
  7. What does Diggsy’s reference to things “not always being so black and white” mean to you?
  8. How/Why are the articles (ABC and Chicago Tribune) about the train stabbing different?

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Black-&-White-Stereotypes-and-Privilege

Resources:

Two articles about the train stabbing to which Diggsy refers in his story:

http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/ct-red-line-stabbing-20160623-story.html

http://abc7chicago.com/news/woman-stabbed-to-death-on-cta-red-line/1398582/

Themes:

  • African American/Africans
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Identity

Full Transcript:

In 2014, I was driving. I was in the car with my best friend Jason and we were driving to a high school reunion. Yes, it was 2014, and we’re going back and forth, just catching up a little bit and he asked me, “So, how’s Chicago?”

I said, “Man, I’ve gotta tell you about the train. So, a few weeks before, I was sittin’ on the train, I look over and there is a sign that says emergency exit only, um, do not enter. There’s a black man that walks through that door. And it was surprising to me because the train’s still moving, so he walks into the middle of the train car. And he stops and he makes his announcement, ‘Change, change? Anybody got some change? Fifty cents or a dollar? Help me get something to eat. Change, change? Anybody got some change?’”

“The train’s normally quiet and subdued. Everybody’s kinda looking at Facebook and their U-Tube. So, no one’s really paying attention to him, which I thought was surprising because he made this big announcement. So, he’s scowling up and down, looking around and then he starts to walk to the next train car. Then he stops. He turns around. He makes eye contact with this middle-aged, white woman.”

“‘Woman, what you lookin’ at? Don’t you be lookin’ at me! You lookin’ at me? Don’t you be… you think you’re better than me? You ain’t no better than me!’”

“Awkward. So, I, uh… Chicago has, uh, closed down some of the mental health facilities and he kind of looks like he’s off his meds. I don’t really know what to do. There’s a seat to the left of her, left of this white woman. And I go and I sit down next to her just to give myself options. I don’t know if I’m gonna do something or I’m not gonna do something but I wanted to make sure that I had some options. And I look over at him and he’s still going off.”

“‘Woman, don’t you be looking at me.’”

“So, it’s not lost on me, on this same train, just a couple of days before, there was actually a black man that had stabbed a woman to death. And I’m wondering if that’s going to be like a continuation here. So, I’m watching him just yell, yell, and, finally, nothing happens. He walks to the next train car and it’s calm.”

I’m telling this story to my friend Jason as we’re driving to the, uh, reunion. I said, “Well, at least we now gave that white woman, um, options. She doesn’t have to just stereotype me along with this, uh, angry, black man.

And Jason looks at me and says, “Why do you think that she would stereotype you with him? You’re your own person. He’s his own person.”

And I just… it kind of surprised me that he said that. Because it was at that point I realize, “Wow! Jason’s, Jason’s white, um, because he thinks that I don’t have to take on this stereotype that if she… if, if a black man stabs somebody on the train that I don’t have to associate myself with him.”

He said, “If Justin Bieber pees in a mop bucket, no one would ever associate me with him.”

I said, “Yeah, but if a black man stabs somebody on the train, people may associate me with that black man.”

And it was just interesting, just epiphany, that, wow, we come at this from different perspectives. Um, he was surprised that I had to take on certain stereotypes. I was surprised that he didn’t have to take on certain stereotypes.

So, we’re driving. Um, we finally arrive at the, uh, high school reunion. Uh, when we walk in, there’s this guy, his name is Paul but I’ve always call him Dean. And, Dean, just to me, represents the stereotype of just white privileged. Uh, his dad was, like, the mayor of the town. So, he just represented all of those types of stereotypes to me.

So, um, after, after we’re done smoozin’, um, there’s just the three of us left. We sit down, uh, we sit down at a table and I’m having a conversation with Dean. And it surprised me a little bit, um, because I’m asking him, “Uh, how did, how did life go for you after high school?”

And he tells me that he went, um, on to go play, uh… He was the star high school football quarterback and now he’s gone on to college to become a star, uh, football player as well.

And I thought to myself, “Okay, you probably got this ’cause your daddy, right? You’re white. You’re privileged. It just goes along with the stereotype.”

And then he told me… I said, “So, so, how did you get to college?”

And he told me that he actually put together his football tapes, that he was the top 10 passing quarterback in Ohio. And he went to exposure camps on his own, and he met with coaches on his own, and it kind of surprised me.

And I thought, at that point, I’m, I’m never going to call him Dean again because I’m undercutting all of his success and stereotyping him just as a white privileged guy. And it just hit me as all three of us were sitting there, that it’s easy to make things seem so black and white when they’re not always so black and white.

Fit In or Stand Out: An African-American’s Battle to Fit into White Culture

 by Storyteller E.B. Diggs

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are the similarities between the storyteller’s hometown and the legal community?
  2. What is the importance of the storyteller expressing his individuality in the white culture in which he finds himself?
  3. How do the storyteller’s opinions compare to his barber, Mr. Matthews, on standing out from the white culture?
  4. How do the storyteller’s opinions compare to his coaches on fitting into the white culture?
  5. Compare the 8th grade coach’s opinion to the high school coach’s opinion on standing out and fitting into the white culture.
  6. What are the similarities between high school coach’s position on his dyed hair and storyteller’s position on the black girl’s dyed hair? Why is the storyteller conflicted about hiring the black girl with the red dyed hair?

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  Fit-In-or-Stand-Out-An-African-Americans-Battle-to-Fit-into-White-Culture

Resources:

Black Faces in White Places: 10 Game-Changing Strategies to Achieve Success and Find Greatness by Randall Pinkett
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Themes:

  • African American/Africans
  • Bullying
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Identity
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
  • Workplace

Full Transcript:

I grew up in a small town right outside of Columbus – Delaware, Ohio. It was 95 percent white, 5 percent black and we all, or most of the black people lived on the southside of town.

Um, there was a barber. His name was, uh, Mr. Matthews and I loved Mr. Matthews. Mr. Matthews used to cut our hair, um, cheap, $3; he used to cut our hair for $3. All the other haircuts were 10, 12 dollars.

He had this idea that, um, he wanted to make haircuts affordable but he also wanted to give you your own style, your own personal style. And I just loved that. So, uh, as I was transitioning from seventh grade into eighth grade, from, like, band geek and brainy guy to, uh, basketball superstar, I was gonna play on the basketball team and be a star.

“Mr. Matthews, um,” I said, “Man, cut, cut Diggs in my hair and put the dollar sign in it, right! And it was kind of funny ’cause I was poor but I had a dollar sign on my hair. So, I did it and my eighth-grade basketball coach, Mr. Webb, it was amazing.

He used to, uh, just allow you to be an individual, um, which is very important. Um, as a black person on the southside, you can kind of get lumped in together. And having your own unique haircut and your own unique style allows you to break through some of those stereotypes and to be seen as an individual. And Mr. Webb would walk up, call you brother, can… give you the pound. Um, he would dev…, he developed some one on one plays, allowed me to do what I do best, to go one on one. But he also showed me the importance of fitting into the collective, how me, one of, uh, two black people on a p… white dominated, uh, team, how I needed to fit into that collective. But I could still be an individual, and I loved Mr. Webb for that. I loved him so much for that. Um, I was hoping, as I went from eighth grade to ninth grade, that it would be the same thing in high school.

So, I devised this plan. Everybody was looking to fit in, um, fit in with whatever group they were gonna be in high school. And I was looking to stand out. So, in the living room with my mom, I devised this plan.

I said, “I’m going to put red tips on my hair.”

And she said, “Why don’t you just dye your whole hair red?”

I said, “Mom, why don’t I dye my hair blonde?”

She said, “Why don’t you dye it silver?”

I said, “Mom, I’m gonna dye my hair silver!”

So, that day, we went, we got the hair dye. We sat in the living room. She sat on the couch. I sat in between her legs and she put this hair dye in my hair. And it… I could smell the chemicals mixed in with my hair, the ammonia. It just smelled so good. I was becoming Diggs; I was becoming my own person. I just loved it. I went to school. Everybody knew me.

“Hey, who’s that guy with the, uh, silver hair?”

“Oh, that’s Diggs! That’s Diggs.”

I was my own person and I was hoping the coaches would accept me as well. So, a week… the weekend before we were starting basketball, we’re going to have our first game. Um, we’re in the gym. I’m standing against the wall, waitin’ for my turn to go in, to run the drill. And there’s a coach. One of the coaches is about four steps away from me.

He says, “Hey, Diggs, I, I like your hair. You gonna keep that for the season?”

And I was like, yes, yes! This is so awesome! The coaches are accepting me for who I am. They’re gonna allow me to be an individual and fit into this collective. A black man fitting into this white culture. This is amazing.

I said, “Yes, coach. I’m gonna keep it.”

His voice dropped a little bit. He took two steps towards me. The conversation became a little more intimate.

“You’re gonna have that out of your hair before the season starts, right?”

No, no. I’m going to do it this year. I may do it next year. Uh, why did you just ask me that? But I figured because he asked me the same question again, he wanted a different answer. So, I just didn’t say anything. He takes two more steps towards me and now we’re almost face to face. His voice drops even more and the conversation became very intimate.

“You’re gonna have that out of your hair before the season starts, right?”

Ohhh, okay. Maybe he doesn’t accept me as an individual and maybe he just wants me to fit in. Okay, I see what the coach is doing here.

“Um, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. I, I’ll have it out.”

And, uh, that day… we had the weekend to dye my hair back so, I went and told my mom. She got this jet-black hair dye and, um, I sat in the living room. She sat on the couch, I sat between her legs and the chemicals, huh! She put this hair dye on my hair and I could smell this disgusting ammonia smell as the chemicals were mixed in with my hair.

And I could feel my individuality just being stripped from me and I loved playing basketball in high school. But after that, I liked playing just a little bit less. And, uh, after my sophomore year, I just… I, I felt like I was losing myself. So, I, I didn’t, I didn’t try out for my junior year.

Going into college, I started to find myself again. I started finding my writing voice and started figuring out who I was. Um, I knew that I wanted to help people and maybe I was just like Mr. Matthews. Um, going into law school, I realized that, um, I needed to figure out how to fit into that new collective, that new legal, uh, community. So, after I graduated, I moved out here to, um, Chicago. And I started my own law firm and I realized that the, uh, the legal community is primarily white. It was just like my old town; it’s primarily white with speckles of, of black. And I needed to figure out how to be an individual but also to fit into that collective.

A few years later, my law firm started to take off. It was amazing and I had an opportunity to, uh, make my first hire. It was this black girl and she had, um, long hair and it was dyed red. And I wanted to tell her that, um, you can’t have your hair dyed like that; you’re gonna stand out too much. I felt like my coaches. You can’t have your hair dyed like that; you’re, you’re not gonna fit in. You’re going to stand out too much and we already stand out. And if I take you into court, we’re gonna look ridiculous and no one is going to take us serious.

Then I thought about my coaches, and I thought about if I told her that, I’d be stripping her of her individuality. So, when she asked if she could work for me, I said, “Yes.” And I decided I was gonna allow her to figure out how she wanted to fit in or stand out.

Stan – A Story of a Holocaust Survivor

by Storyteller Dan Keding

Story Summary:

This story is about learning about bigotry and the strength to conquer it and the wisdom that a young person can learn from a stranger who becomes a friend.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  Stan-A-Story-of-a-Holocaust-Survivor

Discussion Questions:

  1. What makes Stan a strong man?
  2. What drew the teller to Stan? What lessons did Dan learn from Stan?

Resources:

From a Name to a Number: A Holocaust Survivor’s Autobiography by Alter Wiener
Displaced Persons: Growing Up American After the Holocaust by Joseph Berger

Themes:

Crossing Cultures
Education and Life Lessons
European American/Whites
Family and Childhood
Jewish Americans/Jews
War

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name is Dan Keding and I’m going to tell you the story about Stan, a Holocaust survivor.

In between sixth and seventh grade, my family moved from the south side of Chicago to the north side. And I remember the day we arrived at the new apartment building we were going to be living in – one of those U-shaped apartment buildings with a courtyard. Well, we pulled up behind the moving van and, as I got out of the car, this enormous shadow covered me. And a voice boomed out and said, “Welcome to the neighborhood! I’m Stan.”

And this great, huge hand that could palm a bowling ball came out of that shadow and he pumped my arm. And I was looking at the biggest human I had ever seen in my life. Stan was six foot six at least; 300 lbs. of muscle. He had a big, floppy hat on and a crooked grin and he walked with a slight limp.

And he held court inside our courtyard. There was always a lawn chair there. And pretty soon, that summer, there were two lawn chairs. Stan and I became friends and every day, we would sit there and he would tell me stories.

He was a Polish Jew who had come to America after the war and he told me stories of Poland, the old legends. He told me Jewish folk tales. He told me stories of the war where he’d fought in the Resistance in Poland.

We’d go for walks sometimes. And even the adult bullies would walk off the sidewalk and smile kind of sheepishly as Stan would say, “How ya doin?”

And they’d go, “Okay,” ’cause his shoulders took up most of the sidewalk.

He was a sweet and kind man… gentle. One day, he turned to me and said, “You know, Dan, you’re gonna be a big man when you grow up. You know what’s important, don’cha?”

Well, I had been watching Errol Flynn for years, you know. I knew what was important. “Honor,” I said.

And he looked at me and said, “Honor? (spit) Honor is a luxury. Honor is stupid!” He says, “If a man curses you… a man dishonors you, you walk away. They’re less a man than you! The only things worth fighting for are family and friends.” That was a lesson I needed to hear.

Well, one day we were talking and Stan, he turned to me and said, “It is so hot out today.”

And it was July, and I said, “Oh, you’re right!” We were both soaked in the sun and he took off his floppy hat, which I’d never seen him do before. He took a big, huge bandanna and started to wipe his head, which was totally devoid of any hair and was covered in surgical scars.

As he put his hat back on, I turned to him and said, “What happened to you?”

He said, “During the war, we ambushed a Nazi patrol and there were more of them than we thought. I was wounded. That’s why I limp. And before I could take my own life, as we often did in the Resistance, I was captured. Because I’m a Jew, they sent me to a concentration camp, Dan.  Because I’m so big and so strong, they experimented on me.”

The doctors at the camp had opened his skull dozens of times to see how the human brain worked. But, you know, they couldn’t find the gentleness and the beauty of his.

One day, he turned me and said, “Dan, let’s go for a…” And he slumped in his chair. I panicked and I ran up the steps of the apartment building, knocked on the door where his, his wife and he lived.

And I said, huh, huh, I said, “Huh, huh, is… it’s Stan! He’s had a heart attack. He’s had a stroke!”

She said, “Shh… stop.” So, I did. She said, “It’s what they did to him, Daniel. You haven’t seen it before. Once, twice, even three times a day, Stan passes out. Just go downstairs, sit down next to him. And when he wakes up, he’ll start a sentence from where he left off.”

This is kind of spooky for a boy going into seventh grade, but I did as I was told. And I went downstairs and sat in that lawn chair. And after about five minutes, those huge shoulders squared up and the head came up and he said, “walk around the neighborhood and see what’s happening.”

I said, “Sure, Stan, let’s go.”

One day, my stepdad was changing a tire. He couldn’t get the last lug nut off. Uh, and Stan walked over and said, “Hey, Herm. What’s, what’s the problem?”

And my stepfather said, “I can’t get the lug nut off this last one. They must have put in on too tight with those pneumatic tools they use now.”

Stan says, “I can get it off.”

And my stepdad handed him the tire iron. And Stan looked at the tire iron as if it was some kind of strange, foreign instrument. And he put it down on the grass, reached over with two fingers, grabbed the lug nut and went (clk) and took it off and handed it to my stepfather. He told that story for the rest of his life.

When school started, I went to the Catholic school. Mom always said, “Dan, you have to go to the Catholic school because I can’t impose you on people who are paid with taxes.” I thought that was cruel of her but it was true.

One day I said to Stan, “Stan, why don’t you come to school, tell your stories?”

And Stan got this look of mock horror on his face. He said, “Oh, no, Dan! I went into that Catholic church one time and I saw what they did to the last Jew they got their hands on.” And then he started laughing at the top of his voice and his laughter rolled out of the courtyard and into the street.

It was late autumn and I was coming home from school when I saw an ambulance pulling away from the apartment building. Jenny, who lived in the basement, she was standing there and I said, “What happened?” And she told me that it was Stan.

We didn’t have garages or workrooms or basements even. When we built things, we built them in the kitchen because that’s where the linoleum was and you could clean it up. Stan was building a bookcase and he slipped and the saw went through his wrist. And before he’d get to the phone, call for help, he had one of his spells and he bled to death on the kitchen floor.

And I stood there at the curb and I wanted to hate someone so badly. But all the men who had hurt my friend were dead.

At the funeral, his wife told me not to forget his stories and I promised her I wouldn’t. And then she grabbed the lapel of my coat. She looked me in the eye and she said, “You know, Dan, the Nazis killed my husband but he was so strong, it took him 20 years to die.”

Three Assassinations: Kennedy, King, Kennedy

by Storyteller Megan Hicks

 

Story Summary:

 Megan was confused when her 9th grade classmates reacted differently to the assassination of President Kennedy than her family did. She didn’t know who was right. And then she learned to listen to what her heart told her was truth for her.

For print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Three-Assassinations-Kennedy-King-Kennedy

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Have you ever wondered how you’re “supposed” to feel about a situation that makes you uncomfortable?
  2.  How can you be friends with someone you disagree with?
  3.  What’s the difference between an argument and a debate?
  4.  What happens when you realize you no longer believe some of the assumptions you grew up with?

Resources:

  • The President Has Been Shot!: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy by James F. Swanson
  • The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

 

Themes:

  • Civil Rights Movement
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name is Megan Hicks.

It was a Friday morning, in late November, in 1963. I was in my second period algebra class. We heard the loud speaker in the ceiling crackling and the vice principal’s voice came through. He said, “Teachers, students.”  We all figured it was gonna be an announcement about the pep rally or the activity bus for the game that night. Instead, he said, “We’ve just received word that the president has been shot. President Kennedy has been shot and he is dead. Extra-curricular activities cancelled, school is dismissed early. Please take your regular assigned buses home.”

Well, I sat there on the bus on the way home that day, I was looking out the window, looking down at my lap, wondering how I was supposed to feel about all this. And all around me, kids were crying, boys and girls, volubly. I, I, wondered…They acted as though it were a family relative who had just been killed. I mean, I knew a terrible thing had happened but I didn’t know President Kennedy personally. It’s not like his death affected me. These kids, the way they were carrying on, you know, it just seemed kind of phony to me, except that 9th graders, especially boys, don’t cry in public. And I thought it was really strange. I realized all these kids came from families that their parents had probably voted for Kennedy for president.

My parents hated Kennedy. They voted for Richard Nixon. I remember, that 1960 campaign. I was 10 years old; my mom and dad took me with them. They knocked on doors, they distributed year signs, bumper stickers, they made phone calls. That election was so close, they held out hope until the very last votes were counted. But, when all was said and done, it wasn’t Richard Nixon. No, it was the rich kid from Harvard, the papist, who talked funny, who went to the White House.

Now, my mom and dad, like Richard Nixon, had both grown up in humble circumstances. We were living in Orange County, California at the time but both my parents had grown up during the Great Depression in Oklahoma, where Jim Crow laws were strictly observed and enforced. That “separate but equal” approach to race relations, to my parents’ way of thinking, had been working just fine all along. And then along comes this East Coast intellectual, this John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Bringing in Federal government to integrate Southern schools, Southern buses, Southern affairs that were none of his business. I sat there on the bus that November day, and I thought, “Well, he went and got himself assassinated.” And I guess that’s a terrible thing. But it all washed over us pretty quickly. Thanksgiving was just around the corner and then Christmas and by the time we rang in the New Year, everybody was accustomed to the idea of President Lyndon Johnson.

Now, my mom and dad hated Johnson too. I mean, he went right on with Kennedy’s Civil Rights Act, plowing through, with, with movements and, and legislation. And my parents were just sure it was the end of life in America as we knew it. I mean, it was an almost a weekly occurrence now. We saw race riots, we saw protest demonstrations, sit-ins; not firsthand because we lived in a good neighborhood. And, you know, I went to an all-white high school but all you had to do is turn on the TV. And my parents said, “See there, there’s proof this country is going to hell in a handbasket. What do those people want? That Martin Luther King and all those black power agitators. I mean, they’re just whipping them into a frenzy. King needs to go back where he belongs. They would go back where they belong and then we could get some peace around here. Somebody needs to shut that man up.”

And in April 1968, somebody did shut him up, permanently. My next-door neighbor was almost beside herself with excitement. She said, “Isn’t this just exactly what I said was gonna happen, huh? Haven’t I said that he has been asking for it for years? He got no better than he deserves, as far as I’m concerned.”

My mom allowed us how it was really terrible that things had come to this pass. She said, “Well, no. He won’t be giving any more speeches but you know, the real tragedy is that now the is a martyr.”

My dad watched the six o’clock news with satisfaction, “Ah, there’s another troublemaker out of the way.  Pay attention, Megan,” he said. “This is what happens when you stand up, you rock the boat, you make yourself a target. Martin Luther King brought this on himself. I hope you understand that.” I didn’t understand anything.

You know, by the time of Dr. King’s murder, 1968, I was a freshman in college. A very sheltered freshman living in a household where all the answers had been determined long before I was even born. I was going to a college where there didn’t seem to be any answers, just more questions. In my home, a disagreement meant somebody left the conversation angry. In my college classes, we were encouraged to disagree, to debate, to argue, to, to consider things from different perspectives that sometimes change our minds. You know, all I wanted was for somebody to tell me what I needed to know to pass the tests. I thought, “I can’t sort this out now. I’ve got papers to write. I’ve got finals coming up. It’s not as if I’m old enough to even vote yet, anyway.  So, what difference does it make? All this controversy, it makes me uncomfortable. It’s distracting. I‘m not gonna think about it.”

And I didn’t until June when Robert Kennedy was shot and killed. I knew what my parents thought of Robert Kennedy, not much. He was just like his big brother, John – only worse. Only more the advocate for this Civil Rights Movement, more the champion of these political agitators who, to my parents’ way of thinking, were running America into the ground. And it looked like, until the bullet brought him down, he was on his way to the White House too. I heard about it driving to my sociology class. It was on the radio news. The announcer said, “Senator Kennedy had just won the California Democratic presidential primary and was on his way out of the convention hall.  He has been shot and killed.” The announcer said, “Today has been declared a national day of mourning. People who want to honor the work and the life of Senator Kennedy are encouraged to drive with their headlamps on as a sign of respect.”

I honestly didn’t know what I thought about Bobby Kennedy at the time but in that moment, in the car alone, with no one there to cue me about how to think, how to respond, how to act, I did know one thing. That was the moment I knew that it is obscene for anyone to think somebody’s standing up and speaking their mind, speaking what’s on their heart, is grounds for homicide. In that moment, I realized it doesn’t matter if I embrace what you have to say or if I totally rejected it. You speaking up should not get you shot.

I sat up a little straighter in the driver’s seat. My hand trembled a little as it left the steering wheel and reached out for the dashboard. It was a tiny, timid, political statement but it was my first and I remember it viscerally. I reached for the knob, I pulled those headlamps, and I drove with my high beams on all day.

Sparta, Georgia

by Storyteller Gene Tagaban

 

Story Summary:

 Gene travelled by van across the country to see the land of his people. Along his journey, he had the experience of meeting a southern white couple on a backcountry dirt road and an old black man in Sparta, Georgia who fought with First Nation men during the Korean War.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Sparta-GA

Discussion Questions:

  1.  How do we break up the biases we have about other people?
  2. Can travel be a way to open or confirm our ideas about other people?
  3.  Where would you like to travel? How would you keep an open mind about the people you meet along the way?

Resources:

  •  On the Road by Jack Kerouac
  • The Smooth Traveler: Avoiding Cross-Cultural Mistakes at Home and Abroad by Susan O’Halloran

Themes:

  •  African American/Black History
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • First Nations/Native Americans
  • Living and Traveling Abroad
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
  • War

Full Transcript:

Gunalchéesh! My name is Gene Tagaban.

My name is Guy Yaaw.  I’m of the Takdeintaan clan, the Raven, Freshwater Salmon clan from Hoonah, Alaska. I’m the child of a Wooshketann, Eagle, Shark clan Káawu huna in Juneau, Alaska.

I am Cherokee, Tlingit and Filipino. I’m a Cherotlingipino. I’d like to tell the story about an adventure of mine when I was a young man. I bought a van and I was going to drive across the country. And see what that land where I came from, my Indian people, was like.

Many people were exploring Europe and going over there but there’s so much richness here just in our backyard. So I was driving through Louisiana, me and my girlfriend. And so we stopped one night on a side road, dirt road and it was dark out. We were gonna camp there for the night. As we are just gettin’ ready to camp, a truck pulls up. Pulls in front of us. Turned around. And the headlights are shining right into our van. I’m thinking to myself, “Oh! What the heck’s going on here?”

And the only thing that could run through my mind was just these things I hear that’s going on in the south in the back country in Deliverance. We were kind of freaked out and they pulled up right next to us. I rolled down my window. And they said, “How y’all doin’?”

“Oh, we’re doin’ good.”

“Now where are y’all from?”

I told ’em, “I’m originally from Alaska.”

“Who are you people?”

And I said,” Guy Yaaw (then speaks about his people in his native language).

And they looked at me and said, “Now what kind of foreign language is that?”

“Oh, that’s my Tlingit language. I’m a Native American from this country. That language I just spoke to you was from Alaska.

“Alaska! You guys from Alaska?”

I said, “Yes, I am!”

“Now what y’all doin’ way down here. Did you guys get lost?”

I said, “No, we’re just driving around seeing this country.” And we started to strike up a conversation.

And he asked me, “How do y’all say… fire?”

“Fire.”

He said, “Now did you hear that… fire. Now right here you say… fire to say… fire. You know, you’re some interesting folks! Now we don’t get many people like you around here much often. You know what? We’re having a… a gathering here that’s coming up here in a couple of days. You sure are welcome to come if you’d like to come. You can meet my kin, my folks that’s back there in the swamps a little bit. You’ll be more than welcome!”

I said, “Ah, thank you for the invitation but I think we’re gonna move on and keep traveling. I think we’re gonna make our way up… around Georgia. See, I’m part Cherokee and my people come from that area.”

“Well, all I want to tell you is that stay away from Sparta, Georgia there. I’ve been to Sparta. A lot of black folk there, you know. You good people. I don’t want you to get in trouble now. Ah, it’s good to meet you.”

“It sounds good to me too. I’ll tell you what! A couple of days later, we are in Sparta, Georgia and we were hungry. So we went to go get a couple of sandwiches and across the street was a basketball court and playin’ basketball there – a bunch of youngsters playing ball and they’re all black. And we sat there to go watch them play basketball. So we’re sitting there eatin’ our sandwiches and they’re arguing back and forth because they need an extra player.

And so they looked at me. They came up to me and said, “Heh! You right there! You play ball?”

I go, “Who? Me?’

“Yeah, we’re talking to you. You play ball?”

I said, “Do I play ball?” Now, I tell you what! Indians love basketball! So I said, “Yeah, I play ball!”

And so we went out there. They brought me out there. We started playing hoops back and forth. And we were playing basketball all afternoon and then they asked me, “Excuse me. Where are you from?”

I said, “From Alaska.”

And they asked me, “Are you an Indian?”

I said, “Yeah, I am!”

“Can we touch you?”

“You want to touch me?” I said, “Sure.”

So they felt my skin and they felt my hair and they told me… they said, “Hey, wait here, wait here!” And so they ran off but they brought back all their family, their relatives – aunties, uncles, cousins. They wanted to meet us Native American people because they’ve only heard about us in movies, books, magazines, museums. They never met a real live native person before. They said, “We gotta take you…we got Uncle Leroy who’d love to meet you.”

And so we went to Uncle’s Leroy’s house and Uncle Leroy, when we walked in, he was like this skinny black man. I mean he was so black, he was like purple. Long white hair, long white beard and he had square glasses tinted blue. Yes, and he was skinny, about as skinny as a broom pole when he came shuffling up to us, looked at me, “My Indian brothers!” You see, Uncle Leroy was in the Korean War and in the Korean War, Uncle Leroy was this young black man and he was scared and there were bombs and guns goin’ off. And so he was runnin’ around. But at the same time he was runnin’ around, there are a couple of Indians in a foxhole and they’re smokin’ their tobacco, saying their prayer. “Oh, Creator, take care of us. I swear here on this here foreign land, watch over us and we promise we’ll live a good life. Send us a sign that you hear what we’re talkin’ about. You hear our prayers!” And they’re smoking their tobacco! And just as they’re praying, suddenly Uncle Leroy jumps into their foxhole and those two Indians look at this black man and they go, “Ah, the creator! Thank you for sending us this good luck charm of a black man. We promise we’ll take care of this young man here in a good way.” And so they did.

They kept that promise and they took care of Uncle Leroy. And they taught Uncle Leroy about spirit, honor, culture, tradition, prayer, brotherhood. And they took care of Uncle Leroy and Uncle Leroy felt that. He owed those Indian brothers of his. So I went to his house. He told us the stories of brotherhood, took care of us while we were in his home. So the next morning we jumped in the van and we headed off. And as we were driving off, I heard Uncle Leroy, “My Indian brothers!”

Navajo Code Talker

by Storyteller Gene Tagaban

 

Story Summary:

 During WWII the Navajo Code Talkers created a code that was never broken. The Navaho were forced off their reservations into boarding schools where they were told not to speak their language or practice their culture. But when WWII started, the United States military reached out to the Navajo to help them create a code using their previously forbidden language.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Navajo-Code-Talker

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Why did the U.S. switch its policy toward the Navajo’s native language?
  2. The Navajo were not allowed to speak of their role in WWII until 1968. What effect do you think it had that those fighting alongside American Indians during the War were unaware of their critical contribution?

Resources:

  •  The First and Only Memoir by One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers by Chester Nez and Judith Schiess Avila
  • Code Talk: A Novel About the Navajo Marine of World War Two by Joseph Bruchac

Themes:

  •  Crossing Cultures
  • European American/Whites
  • First Nations/Native Americans
  • Identity
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
  • War

Full Transcript:

Gunalchéesh! My name is Gene Tagaban. My Tlingit name is Guy Yaaw. I’m of the Takdeintaan clan. The Raven, Fresh Water Sockeye clan from Hoonah, Alaska. I’m a child of a Wooshkeetaan, Eagle, Shark clan Káawu huna in Juneau, Alaska and I’m a Tlingit, Cherokee and Filipino. And I tell people I’m a Cherotlingipino. It’s good to be here.

Ah, you know our elders are precious. In fact, we often refer to them as our, our precious objects. I mean… but they’re more than that, our elders, and we hold them in reverence and honor. I had the opportunity to travel around the country with a man; his name is Andrew Osano from Cochiti Pueblo, USA.

Now Andrew was a medicine man or, you might say, Andrew was a holy man. But when you’re from the Pueblo or the reservation, things just move slower. And I was telling Andrew, “We’re going to New York.” I said, “Andrew, when we get to New York, everyone’s going to be moving really fast. And so you need to just move just a little bit faster than you’re used to.”

He goes, “Oh! OK, OK, OK!” And so when we’re flying into New York, he’s looking out the window and his perspective on it was, “Oh, look at that! New York City! All the buildings looked like headstones. Interesting, eh!”

So I’m walkin’ through New York with Andrew Osano and we go to the top of the Empire State Building. And it was a time when Hale-Bopp, the comet, was going through. And so Andrew, he takes those binoculars and instead of looking at New York City, he looks up into the sky, “The comet! Oh! Ah!” And he starts to say some prayers, singing a song and everybody around him starts looking at Andrew Osano, Cochiti Pueblo, USA, medicine man, holy man.

A few years later after that, I drove to Cochiti Pueblo to see Andrew and he goes, “Oh! Oh, Raven T! Oh, it’s good to see you. I need a ride. Ah! We go see my uncle.” And so we’re driving to another pueblo, to see his uncle. And as we’re going through certain areas, Andrew stops, closes his eyes sings and says prayers. “Spirits all along this road,” he says. So we pulled up to a small house. He goes, “My uncle lives here. My uncle, he is a Navajo Code Talker.”

“Navajo Code Talker? Ah!”

“Come in, let’s visit.” We walked in and there’s a small Indian man there, wrinkled skin, dark. And I look into his eyes and they’re just deep, dark brown.

We share a little bit of coffee and I ask him, “Navajo Code Talker! What was it like?”

And he goes, “Oh! You see, I grew up out here, out here, taking care of the land, taking care of our animals, livin’ on the land. And then the government comes in and tells us we can’t speak our language, sing our songs, practice our culture. They took us to schools to teach us a new way.

And then World War II came along. And they called on our services. You see, they wanted us to fight and defend our country but they wanted us to use our language to create a code. Our language that was forbidden! Our language that they told us that we can no longer speak! They wanted us to create a code to help them win the war. Many of the Navajo people enlisted.

And they wanted us to go through basic training. You see, they didn’t think that we could make it through basic training. They thought that maybe we were too fragile. But once we got out there during basics… ah, we scored the highest on everything!”

“Well, this is simple,” we said, “because this is our life. We live out here.” So we went out there. And we developed a code through our language. Nobody broke that code! And for 20 years after the war was over, we were taught never to reveal what we did. And we kept that commitment.

I asked him, “When you came back, what did you do to heal?”

And he goes, “Ah! You know, not like nowadays. Those young men, they come back, they’re on a plane. They close the eyes. They wake up. They’re back in the city.

Back then, we had time to jump on a boat, a ship and we were together. A brotherhood to take care of each other, to talk, to hold each other, to cry. And then when I got back to our reservation, you see, amongst our people, we are not home yet. We are just spirits until we go through a ceremony and then… we become whole again. That’s what’s missin’ in this country nowadays is that ceremony.”

You see, we just sat and had coffee, ate some cookies and just shared stories. And it was an honor for me to sit there amongst a true hero of this country. For if it was not for the Navajo code, we may never have won that war. Huh…! Helps me appreciate who we are as a people. Navajo Code Talkers! Huh!

Afternoon with Rachel, Holocaust survivor

by Storyteller Gene Tagaban

 

Story Summary:

 Gene tells of an afternoon he spent with Rachel, a Holocaust survivor, in Omaha, Nebraska. Rachel, an elderly woman, asks Gene, “Tell me about your people?” Gene tells her of the 1835 Indian Removal Act and how his Cherokee ancestors were forced to leave their homes and walk for 800 miles through the winter months; many died. Rachel replies, “Your people, my people – same.” Later, Gene goes to the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. and while being overcome with emotion, is comforted by an African American woman

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Afternoon-with-Rachel-Holocaust-Survivor

Discussion Questions:

  1. What do you think of Rachel’s statement: “My revenge: I am going to live a happy life – no one can take that from me.” What might this type of revenge give her that other types of revenge would not?
  2. How do we learn about and stay emotionally present to all the genocide in the past and in the world today? What gives us the strength to look at the worst in humankind?
  3. What can stop “ugly history” from repeating itself? How can we support those who have been through the worst imaginable horrors and those who are willing to speak about and learn from it?

Resources:

  •  Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation by John Ehle
  • Holocaust Museum in Washington by Jeshajaho Weinberg

Themes:

  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • First Nations/Native Americans
  • Jewish Americans/Jews
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
  • War

Full Transcript:

Gunalchéesh! My name is Gene Tagaban. My Tlingit name is Guy Yaaw. I’m of the Takdeintaan clan. The Raven, Fresh Water Sockeye clan from Hoonah, Alaska. I’m a child of a Wooshkeetaan, Eagle, Shark clan Káawu hoonah in Juneau, Alaska and I’m a Tlingit, Cherokee and Filopino. I’m a Cherotlingopino and it’s wonderful to be here to share stories with you. I’d like to share a story about an experience I had. Oftentimes, we have these moments in our lives that are just pivotal. They make a shift within your being, your spirit and out to your soul.

So I was traveling to an event, another storytelling event in Omaha, NE. You know, at first I didn’t want to go really to Omaha, NE. I’m from Juneau, Alaska – mountains, water! Omaha, NE? Flat, corn. But I was going there for a storytelling festival and I was being housed by a wonderful family so I got there. And the next morning, she asked me (our host), “Every Thursday we always take Rachel out to the market. Would you like to go?”

I said, “Sure, I’ll go.”

“Now I want to tell you this. Rachel is a survivor of Auschwitz, the holocaust.”

I thought to myself, “Wow!”

“Yes, I’d love to meet Rachel!” And so when we took a… pick up Rachel and Rachel is this elderly lady. She came, maybe, up to my shoulder. She had sunglasses on and she walked up to me. She didn’t say much, just looked at me. I opened the door for her and she hopped in and we sat in the back seat.

She said, “I want to go to the market to get apples. I want to make some pie. One of the only things I have left is the recipe from my momma – Apple Pie. They were bakers, you know!”

And so we went to the market to get apples and she was very meticulous about her apples. They couldn’t be too big or too small. She went through them. I carried the bag for her as she placed them in. She didn’t say a word to me. She looked at the apples, put ‘em in the bag. I closed ‘em and she just looked up at me. So on our way back out to the parking lot, we’re going to the car and next to the car was a Hummer. And as we were walking up to the car, Rachel stopped and she just started weeping. And I was going, “Are you okay?”

She goes, “Oh, no, no, no! Those cars! Those cars, they remind me of the cars, those trucks, the vehicles that they took the children to the camps away in! No, no, no! I can’t go over there! No, no, no, no, no, no, no!”

And so I waited on the sidewalk with Rachel as we pulled around and we picked her up. And we went to the house and she prepared the dough. And it was sitting there waiting to rise and Rachel came up to me. She goes, “You’re Indian, aren’t you?”

I said, “Yes.”

“Come, walk with me. Let’s go walk through the garden!” And so she grabbed me by the arm and we started strolling through the garden. And she says, “Now, tell me! Tell me about your people.”

And so I told her, I told her, “In 1835 was the Indian Removal Act and my Cherokee people were forced from their homes to walk on a trail 800 miles during winter. Women, children, elders! Many of ‘em died! Many of ‘em died! And they were put onto a land that was foreign to them. And throughout the Indian country, this was what was going on. They were taking the native people from their lands, the Indian people from their lands. And sometimes they put ‘em in cargo holds on trains and taking ‘em to other places. Many souls were lost.”

And Rachel, she just looked up and she goes, “Huhh! Your people, my people – same! Same!”

As we were walking through the garden, Rachel spotted this beautiful red tomato. And she goes, “Now get that tomato for me!” And I got that tomato and she goes, “Ah, now we need something to cut it!”

I said, “Oh, look at…! I’m going to take this tomato up to the house and I’m going to show it to one…”

And she goes, “No! This is just for you and me! You see, sometimes you have to keep something for yourself!” And so I sat there, and Rachel and I, we ate this red tomato… together… just me and her. That was the best tomato I have ever eaten in my life! She told me, she goes, “You know, me… my revenge… my revenge for what happened to my people, my family is I’m going to live a happy life! That… that cannot be taken away from me! Huh!

So couple days later I was in Washington D.C. and I went to, to the Holocaust Memorial Museum. And, and as I walked through the Holocaust Memorial Museum, I just walked through and I saw the images, the pictures, the cargo holds. But what really got me was the piles of clothes, the piles of eyeglasses and the piles of shoes, especially the children’s shoes!

And when I walked out of that museum, I stood on the sidewalk and I started to cry; I just started to weep. And there was an old black woman who stopped and she handed me a handkerchief and she grabbed my head! She just held me as I wept on the sidewalk!

I took that handkerchief, wiped off my face and when I opened my eyes and looked around, she was gone! I looked down the street, both ways. I looked behind me; she wasn’t in the museum! And I looked around. That’s when I know that we have angels around us all the time!

The Story of My Teacher

by Storyteller Kiran Singh Sirah

 

Story Summary:

 Kiran reveals the experiences of living between two worlds: on one hand, his experiences with racism being one of the few brown boys in his town contrasted with the kindness of strangers as well as the inspiration he received from his storyteller teacher, Mr. George.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  The-Story-of -My-Teacher

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is there a teacher, a parent, a movie star whose life story inspires you? If so, describe why.
  2. Recall a story you heard, a folktale or someone’s personal story that influenced you. Why does it matter to you?
  3. We can all be the stories we want to see in the world. Do you agree with this or not? Explain your reasons and what would your story be?
  4. Why did Kiran talk about both racism and the kindness of strangers in one story? What do you think was his intention by doing so?

 Resources:

Themes:

  •  Asian American/Asians
  • Bullying
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

My name is Kiran Singh Sirah. And this story is for my teacher Mr. George.

I was born in 1976, in a summer heat wave. In a town called Eastbourne. My mother called me Kiran. Kiran which means in Sanskrit, light from the sun. The town I was born in was on the south coast of England, about 80,000 people. I was the first person of color born in that town. On a clear day, you could look out to the sea and you could see France. “Bonjour,” I would say sometimes. And I imagine people back saying, “Hello.” There were so many stories about growing up. It was a good place to grow up. It was a nice town. There was good things that happened. We used to go out for ice cream. We would go down to the seaside. We used to go to and sit on blue and white deck chairs and listen to the bandstand. We would even eat a lot of the fish and the crab sticks. And we used to be a lot of family gatherings.

But then there was the bad side. There was a lot of racism going on at that time. Spurred by Enoch Powell and the far-right fascist groups. The skinhead punk, the green bomber jackets, the Dr. Martin boots. They used this word called “Paki.” It was a horrible word to use. It doesn’t matter what co… where we came from; we could be from Pakistan or India or just brown skinned. They just refer to all of us as Pakis and they’d go out Paki bashing. For us, it’s like the N-word. That’s how we felt. It wasn’t so much about when someone… I’d would leave the house and I’d feel like I have to be on my guard. And it wasn’t the hurt that came to me. It was when I heard someone use that word against my parents, my mother or my father or my brother.

One day when I was about five or six years old, and I remember this vividly, I woke up in the living room on the couch. I’d been knocked out. I didn’t know where I was. My memory just before that, as I was cycling around my BMX bike and a punk had knocked me out. He’d gone Paki bashing. But my mother told me that this old lady, old white lady, had seen what happened. And she picked me up and she took me home. Racism existed in our, in our community. As I said, there was good and there was bad. But sometimes, it was just very difficult to understand why I felt so different. Why was I being treated different? Some of these people called my people the smelly Curry people. The people that worship lots of gods. We’re somehow different and sometimes made to feel really different. I couldn’t concentrate in the school classrooms. I found it really hard to focus. But that was until my head teacher, in the classroom assemblies, started to tell stories.

Mr. George was an older white man. He wore a tweed jacket and always wore a kind face. He told us folk and traditional stories from all over the world. And one day, he told us story about a prince. This worldly prince that gave up all his worldly riches and went out into the world to explore the world and to meet the people of the world. We took two objects with him, a cup and a toothbrush. And one day, he looks out and he sees this man break a twig from a from, a tree and starts chewing it and release these juices that start to clean his teeth. And he realized, I don’t need my toothbrush. And he threw it away. And then, he looked out again and he saw someone bent double, by a river, and used their hands and they cup their hands together and poured out a scoop of water and then drink the water from their hands. So, he threw away his cup, realizing he don’t need that too.

But then one day, he tells us the story about someone that really inspired him throughout his lifetime and that man was called Nelson Mandela. He told us how he remembers him as a chubby man going into prison for his beliefs. But then, over the years, were the images that were coming from South Africa, was this man that had gotten thinner, he’d become wiser, he’d become calmer. And he was promoting messages of peace, of unity. Not just to unite the people of South Africa from all different backgrounds and races and ethnicities, but to unite the world. He was like the conscience of the world.

From Mr. George’s stories, he was connecting me to the wisdom of these folk and traditional tales to know that we can go anywhere in the world. We don’t need the objects. We just need our human bodies. And he’s also connecting us to the idea of social justice and equality and that we actually belong and we’re part of the world around us. I now live in Tennessee, in Jonesborough, Tennessee and I oversee the work of the international storytelling center. My job is to advocate for the power of stories to change people’s lives and to enrich people’s lives. But then I realized last year, now living in the States, I haven’t actually thanked the person that inspired me to tell stories and to think about life in this way. So, I contacted my old elementary school back in Eastbourne. I looked them up. Phoned up the school and I asked about Mr. George, where his whereabouts. They told me that he’s now retired. He’s doing well still. And, uh, but he’s there… in touch with his daughter Claire George.

A few months back, I got an email from Claire George. Never met Claire, his daughter. And Claire had said that she had printed out the articles. She’d Googled me. And she used these articles to speak to Mr…. her…  Mr. George, her father. And all the articles I’d written about Mr. George and talked about what I’m up to. A few weeks back, I received a letter in the post addressed to me at the International storytelling center. And guess who it was from? It was from Mr. George. Mr. Len George. I’d never known his first name. In the letter, he talks about how he remembers me but not just me, he remembers my mother. He remembers the house that I grew up in. He remembers my character, and he remembers, and he’s so proud of me, he said in the letter, of what I’ve achieved and what I’m doing now. And he also studies, still telling stories.

It’s been 30 years since I’ve had any contact with Mr. George. But I know that I owe so much to this teacher, this great teacher, for inspiring me and make me think about the world and how it can also teach. Storytelling is such a powerful teaching tool to enrich other people’s lives. The fact that we don’t need any props or things or objects to experience the world just like that prince in that story. All we really need are the stories. And ultimately, the fact that, we can be the story that we want to see in the world. That was for Mr. George.

The Complexity of Our Street – Burying the Unspoken

by Storyteller Laura Simms

 

Story Summary:

 Issues within the same religious group or ethnicity are complex and rarely discussed. Laura grew up on a street in Brooklyn with many kinds of Jews – Orthodox, Conservative, Sephardic, cultural and so forth. As different as they were, they had one thing in common: no one talked about World War II and the Holocaust. Two young children (one from an Orthodox family and Laura from a Conservative background) find a way to memorialize the unspoken through a make believe graveyard. In doing so, they strike up an unlikely and forbidden friendship.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: The-Complexity-of-Our-Street-Burying-the-Unspoken

Discussion Questions:

  1. As a child, what games did you play with other children?
  2. When you were growing up did you play with children from other races, gender or culture? What was the best part of getting to know others?
  3. When challenges in life and even deaths go unspoken how does that still affect the children?

Resource:

  • God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes: Reflections of Children and Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors by Menachem Z. Rosensaft and Elie Wiesel

Themes:

  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Identity
  • Jewish Americans/Jews
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
  • War

Full Transcription:

Hi, my name is Laura Simms. I grew up in Brooklyn, New York. I was born after World War II. Everyone on my street, in Brooklyn was Jewish. It was after the Holocaust, which was a huge conflagration, a genocide, the murder of millions people.

People in my neighborhood spoke seven languages, they had different customs, they wore different clothing.  There were Conservative Jews, like my family. Those were Jews who went to synagogue once in a while and on the holidays, ate Kosher food. There were Orthodox Jews. They were seriously religious. They wanted nothing to do with Hebrew. They spoke the language from their old country of Yiddish. They wore medieval clothing. I was fascinated by them. There were Reformed Jews. Those were the more political Jews. Everything had to happen in English. And then there were Sephardic Jews from the Middle Eastern countries like Spain and Greece. They, they had different languages and different food. It was very exotic.

The one thing that everyone had in common was that everyone in my neighborhood spoke Yiddish. Oh, and then there was one other thing that everyone had in common. No one spoke about the war that had just happened. But I was a child and as a child, you feel everything.

My father was the neighborhood dentist, and in the back of our house, in the kitchen, that was the place where he was responsible for making important announcements. One afternoon, coming in at lunchtime, my father said, “Lohala, we have new neighbors. Next door, there’s an Orthodox family from Poland. They have a daughter just your age. Her name is Leahala, just like your Hebrew name.” At birth, I was given my name Laura and also a Hebrew name, Leah. I got, as usual, very excited. My father, as usual, tried to dampen my excitement. I think it was something about, “Don’t get too happy. You’ll be disappointed.” But he said, of course, “Don’t get excited. She won’t be your friend. They’re Orthodox. they don’t think we’re real Jews.” Now, I accepted it, the way I accepted everything as a child. Kind of taking it in, thinking about it and somewhat forgetting about it.

Next to my house, right, actually, under my bedroom window, was a small alleyway of dirt. Nothing ever grew there. The sun didn’t shine. It was where I had my secret graveyard. I loved to bury things. I had pieces of dolls’ clothing, my mother’s single sock, an earring. I stole little plastic toys from my father’s dental office. My favorite things to bury, actually, were Chinese food and pieces of pizza that were not kosher. We had strict Jewish dietary laws. My father didn’t allow those foods but when he wasn’t home, my mother would bring it in and say, “Don’t tell your father.” So, I would bury a piece of pizza in a wax paper and then I’d cover it with dirt and put little stones on, like I’d see my parents and grandparents in the graveyard do. I would leap over it or I would throw make believe salt over my shoulders and sing pieces of Hebrew prayers. “Adon olam, asber malak.”

I had a favorite doll of all my dolls. This one was crippled on the left side, one eye hanging out, was completely bald. I dressed her in rags and sometimes even put dirt on her. Her name was Lefty Louie, strangely named for my father. I would put the doll against the wall and then I would tell stories about the history of this lost abandoned, destroyed, unwanted object that I had saved, buried, sanctified, made holy.

One afternoon, suddenly, the window from the next-door house opened. I looked up. And there was a little face. I knew who it was it was. Leahala. She held up her hand. She had a wadded sock. She threw it. I caught it. I buried it. And then, when I was covering it up with dirt, putting little stones around it, she called out in a high-pitched voice, “Kaddosh, Kaddosh, Kaddosh.” Holy, holy, holy. We became best friends. We buried something every day. Our funerals were fabulous. But our entire friendship occurred with me on the ground and her at the window.

And Saturdays, the holy days, the Shabbats, when everybody in the neighborhood promenaded up and down our street in their best clothes, they would talk to each other politely in Yiddish, regardless of what they said about each other in their own languages at the kitchen table. And when my parents would meet Leahala’s parents, Leahala and I would look at each other, turn our backs, pretend we didn’t know each other. Our friendship was a secret. In fact, we had a secret mission; perhaps even a bit of secret to ourselves. When I looked back at it, I realized we were little priestesses; digging; burying; sanctifying; telling stories. We were burying all the dead whose stories were unspoken in our neighborhood. It wasn’t only Jews in the Holocaust. There were Christians, there were gay people, there were political activists and poets, they were gypsies, anyone considered different.

Then, we both turned 12 and our friendship just disappeared. Leahala went to Yeshiva, an all-Hebrew girls school. My mother told me that she was already betrothed to the rabbi’s son. That at her wedding, she would have her hair shaved, she would wear a wig, she would wear long sleeves in August. It’s unbelievable to me. I was obsessed with my hair. My hair hung low, long, curly down my back so I could dance to Elvis Presley and gyrate on my back porch. My skirts were getting shorter. I wasn’t devoted to religion. I gave up burying the dead. I was devoted to rock and roll.

But I grew up. I moved. Israel on the news, often. And I went back to my neighborhood. I had lived in an old farmhouse, the largest house on the street. It was gone. And there were five, three story buildings, with four families in each. My entire neighborhood had become Orthodox. It was like a shtetl, small village in eastern Europe. And the graveyard, I couldn’t find it anymore. It was buried. And I would look into the faces of people walking down the street. They never looked directly at me. After all I was not really a Jew. But I looked for Leahala. I could barely remember what she looked like.

But then one night, when the sun was going down, I was in an airport in London, about to come back home. And there were a group of religious Jews in their black medieval hats with fur and long, black coats of silk. And they were praying, rocking back and forth, facing the sun that was going down. And beside them were two African Muslim young men on prayer rugs. And I stared out the window at the sun. And it dawned on me.

That sometimes, sadly, history creates a gap that maybe, at another time, would not exist but that remains. Getting wider between the Leahala and Leah. But that place, we all pray to, regardless. And that underneath it all, my friendship with Leahala, always exists. And whenever I tell the story about her, there it is. Palpable and real. And I pray all the time that people only bury as we did. And that the constant burial of the dead from wars and racism, that should come to an end.

Small Town Silence

by Storyteller Scott Whitehair

 

Story Summary:

A wannabe comedian in the suburbs of Pittsburgh finally meets a professional comic who is willing to take him under his wing. However, stunned silence over the discovery of a small town’s nasty racial secret destroys a brand new friendship before it can even begin.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  Small-Town-Silence

Discussion Questions:

  1.  When was a time when you remained silent when you should have spoken up about discrimination? What caused you to stay silent?
  2. How could this situation have turned out differently?  What effect could calling out the racism around us have on the people practicing it or on the people experiencing it?
  3. Have you ever observed the silence of others while you yourself were being treated poorly? How would you have wanted others to react or behave?

Resources:

  •  Silent Racism: How Well-Meaning White People Perpetuate the Racial Divide by Barbara Trepagnier
  • Film – Dear White People (2014), Directed By Justin Simien

Themes:

  •  African American/Black History
  • Crossing Cultures
  • European American/Whites
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name is Scott Whitehair. Oddly enough, it all started in a place called the Freedom Inn. The Freedom Inn was a bar in my hometown, where my college improv troupe got to do a monthly show.  nd we were excited because we were ambitious and we thought we were hilarious. Um, so this was a great opportunity for us, not only because we got to go on stage, but we get to open for traveling comedians, who would come from around the country and do a show every month. Ah, now, the shows were OK. We, ah, we got paid in onion rings and bar food. And although the audience was surly, we got some laughs. And we felt that we were right on the right path. Now the… one the most exciting parts was we would approach these road comedians after they were done and we would ask them questions. Ah, we felt like we had access to the pros. We would say, you know, “Can we get you a sandwich? Can we get you something a drink?”

And then we felt that was the permission we needed then to pepper them with questions like, “What is this life like? How did you get into it? How did you get an agent? How do we all become rich and famous through this improv that we’re doing in bars?” And the comedians would mostly accept our drinks and food and they would speak to us.

But they weren’t into it and most of them, the advice they give us, would be things like, “Oh, do you want a happy healthy life? Don’t, don’t get into this.” Ah, they were pretty bitter. They were jaded. Um, they ate up the food, drink a lot of the drinks we get them and, basically, discourage us from following it any further.

But one month, there was a comedian named James. He was a younger African-American man who, immediately, when he got on stage just brought a different energy than had been in this bar in the times we’d been there before. And he, he just lit it up. He was getting laughs from a crowd that was often pretty surly. He shut down a heckler just with a disapproving glance and kind of, a, a kind nod of his head. nd he didn’t play down to this crowd like a lot of these comedians, he, he elevated them. And we were excited. So as soon as the show was over, we walked over and we said, “James, if it’s OK, we’d, we’d like to buy you a drink and some food.” And James took a look at us and said, “No…I know you guys get paid an onion rings. I’m, I’m buying the food.”

And he talked with us and he talked to us for an hour. And he answered our questions and for the first time, we felt like somebody was supporting us. Somebody who had made it as a comedian. Who was doing this with their, their lives was taking the time to encourage us. Letting us know the ins and outs, the practical stuff.  How he had gotten into it. Why he had gotten into it. Where he thought it would go. And we, we were so excited. And as my improv team started to filter out to go home, I hung out longer. And James and I got to know each other even better. And we were at the bar, regulars were still hanging out, and we started to, to throw back and forth and set each other up. You know, he would throw some up and I’d bad slam it home. It was like a two man, two man show at the bar. And it was probably better than most of the shows I had ever been in that people have asked me to do. And it was exciting and I, I felt like I was being taken seriously.

And so at the end of the night James and I were still sitting there having a great time. So as the bar began to, to close, he said, “This is a great time; what else is going on in town. Is there anything else for us to do? I’m still, still ready to make a night of it.”

I thought about it and I said, “Oh, yes, actually. Down the hill near the river, there’s, there’s a club. And it’s a private club so they are allowed to stay open past the 2 a.m. closing time in the Pittsburgh area. And they sell you a membership for the night. But that just means it’s kind of a, a cover charge and you get to hang out.  And James said “That sounds good. Let’s do that. I’m into it.”

And Bill, the bartender, had been standing there. Just quietly washing a glass said, “Scott, They’re not open tonight.”

I was like, “What, what are you talking about Bill? They’re open on Christmas Day. This place, I don’t think, they ever close. Of course they’re open.”

Bill said, “I’m telling you guys they’re closed.”

And I said, “Bill it’s Saturday night. There’s no way that place is closed.

He said, “Trust me, they’re closed.”

So James kind of shrugged and said, “I’m going to the bathroom; maybe we can figured something else out to do. I’m still, I, I get that energy from a show and I’m ready to do it.”

So he hits the restroom.  I kind of look at Bill.  And Bill says, “Scott, they don’t let black people in that club.”

And I started to protest and say, “Well, of course…” But then it kind of washed over me. I had never seen a person of color there. Even though it was located in a predominantly black neighborhood, I’d never seen a person of color in this club. And maybe it didn’t register because I had had a few drinks or it just didn’t hit me, but it hit me right in that moment.

Before I could say anything back to Bill, James came back and he said, “It’s a shame about that place, man.  Sounded like fun.” And I, I just didn’t say anything.

The bar closed and we decided to go down the hill. The other part of town to a diner that was open all night is get some food instead and James was into it. So we go and we continue the conversation. If I got to know him before as a comedian and a pro, I got to know him more as a person. He got to know me. We had conversations about what our childhoods were like, why comedy was so important to us, the way we had been raised, and that proceeded through life. Talked about deeper ambitions and goals and where we wanted this to go, not just as a career but what it would mean to our lives. And I, I again, I felt just so taken seriously and so engaged as a person. I felt like I was making a friend. So we’re sitting there we’re finishing our waffles and somebody comes in who had been at the show earlier. And they sit down in a booth next to us and they noticed us. And they say, “Hey, it’s the comedians. Hey, how come you guys didn’t go to the late night club?”

And James says, “Well, oh, they’re close tonight.”

A guy goes, “That place never closes. It’s Saturday night.” And then I think James understood that something was off. That he hadn’t been told the full truth.

And so we sat there and we finished our food. We finished our coffees and we didn’t say much else. Turned back into small talk. When the bill came, James grabbed it and paid. And we went outside to the parking lot.  Still I said nothing. And so we stood there…in silence. And instead of the hugs we’d shared all night, and the familiar language, James just stuck out his hand and said, “Good luck with everything.” And as I watched him drive out of the parking lot of the diner, and up the road and out of my life forever, I was ashamed. I was ashamed of my town. I was ashamed of the people in it that would let something like this exist. But, most of all, I was ashamed of my silence.

Hasan’s Story: Escaping the Bosnian-Serbian War 1994

by Storyteller Sue O’Halloran

 

Story Summary:

 When former Yugoslavia broke up in the early 1990s, war broke out across the region. Hasan, a Muslim, was a college student in 1992 when the siege against his city, Sarajevo, began. He joined the Army of Bosnia but would do anything to escape and live in peace and freedom. A few of his many adventures are detailed in this excerpt as well as his victory in studying Islam and rediscovering his identity when he came to the United States.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Hasans-Story-Escaping-the-Bosnian-Serbian-War-1994

Discussion Questions:

  1. What led to the break up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s?
  2. What would you do to escape a war? Could you leave your friends and family?
  3. What kept Hasan’s and his friend’s hopes alive?
  4. How has hardship helped you define who you are?

Resources:

Themes:

  • Crossing Cultures
  • Family and Childhood
  • European Americans/Whites
  • Immigration
  • Interfaith
  • Living and Traveling Abroad
  • Muslim Americans/Muslims
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name is Sue O’Halloran. I’m going to tell you a story that’s an excerpt of a longer story. A story about the war that broke out in former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. This is a story of my neighbor, Hasan. Now I’m going to say it as if Hassan were speaking to you in the first person. I do not do a Bosnian accent, believe me, but I want to get a little flavor of Hassan’s speech and most of all the spirit of my dear neighbor. So here’s a little bit of Hasan’s story.

I remember first day of siege. I was in college back then, 21 year old. It is March 4, 1992 and I wake up and I hear my father’s voice out in the living room. “What is going on?” I have to tell you, my father is the type, never late for work, never miss a day of work. He never call in to say he’s sick. I walk out to living room, sleepy and this is how my father greet me. “The whole city is blacked out. People are running around with machine gun. You can’t go anywhere.”

I sit down. I watch TV. We watch TV together. We watch our neighbors absolutely flipping out. Jus-just the night before, my friend, Christian, he was at our house. We are school friends, right. We are hanging out. And next morning he is in Serbian army whose job is to annihilate us Muslims. We listen to TV anchorperson say now our country, Bosnia, it is part of Greater Serbia and Greater Serbia must be cleansed of Muslims and Croats enemies. What, yesterday we are citizens, coworkers, neighbors, and today we are enemies? What has happened? What has changed? We still look the same. We have same skin, it is white. We have two eyes, we have mouth, we have legs, we have arms. What is different? What has changed?

Well, the shelling, it continued all day long. By us is a hospital for babies and one moment it is a hospital of dead babies. Who could do that? The children, of course, they don’t understand; to them, ah, it is day of school off, right? By us, across the street from our apartment, is a hill. The children are sledding on the hill and we hear screams. And we run to the window and there on our street is…is seven dead children in our street. The shelling, the sniper bullets could come out of nowhere. You’re standing line. Now there are lines for everything! Line to buy water, line to get some food, line to get some wood.  And all of sudden shelling or, or, or bullets come out of nowhere and suddenly the 20 people in front of you are dead. You are next in line but you, you are standing there spared, somehow. You understand, we cannot make sense of this.

It took us a while to understand what was going on. We thought it couldn’t happen to us. Finally, I join army of Bosnia. For three long winters, army of Bosnia, we, we hold our city, Sarajevo. Is mystery to me, how we hold that city. We are exhausted. We are, we are no food. We are, we are, we are hungry. We are, we are just tired.

In other unit, a story circulate. We hear a story of an unbelievable suicide. This other unit, they’re holding strategic mountain by Sarajevo. They, like us, no food, no water for days. They’re trudging up snowy mountain, getting up high in mountain. They’re covering, they’re carrying the little packs of things they have left. When a pack horse walks to the edge of the cliff and jumps. The soldiers stood there stunned. And finally, one of them say, “Even the horses can’t take it anymore.”

This is how I feel. This is what I try to tell my parents one Sunday night. I am 24 years old and I tell them my grand scheme. I am leaving. They have one comment for me. “You are out of your mind! How will you get out of here?” they say. “The whole region is at war and our own people could shoot you for deserting the army!”  “I don’t care,” I say. “I do not care. I have got to get rid of these pictures that are in my mind. These pictures that are driving me crazy. I have to leave!”

Long story, my friend, Dino, who is also in army, he leaves with me. We sneak out of tunnel. We get out of city, which is blocked. No way in, no way out. We find way out through tunnel and when we emerge from that tunnel, there before us like big, dark, black wall in the night is Mount Trebević, where just six years before Olympic athletes are skiing, the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics. Oh, so much joy on Mount Trebević! So much, much pride we have! The whole world is watching us host the Olympics and now Mount Trebević is surrounded by death.

Later, long in story, I tell you many more adventures. Almost caught, almost turned in, lying, hiding, cheating, whatever we can do to escape. And finally, we are crossing border.  Finally, months later, out of Bosnia into Croatia. We are trying to get to town of Split on the sea side. Maybe we can get out of area from there. We are going there at nightfall. And as we approached the city at nightfall, we see…lights…lights. We are without lights for over three years. We are without electricity. So, so, so long.  How I tell you? Speechless. Is like night stars fallen to the ground. Light exist. Light exist. I keep saying to myself, light exist. You see, it is like we are living in a cage in Sarajevo and you cannot believe. All existence has stopped outside that cage. You cannot think to yourself that out there somebody is going to eat normally in a restaurant or slept in beds or are going to the office or having a picnic in the park. But if light exists, see to me, that means if light exists that means life exists.

But the magic it start to fade, a bit. We get into Split and there are written on the buildings as graffiti, “Kill Muslims. Death to Muslims.” We are not at war anymore with Croatia but it’s still not a very safe place for us to be. But good luck. We find out that Dino, my friend, his cousin lived in Split.

We are able, long story again, to find our way to his apartment. We get there. It is covered with people. Wall to wall refugees, men, women, children. I do not care. I find a little piece of floor; I fall on it. I am going to sleep for days if I can. When this woman come next to me asked me where we been. I do not want to tell her whole story, months of escape, right? So I mumble a few words and then she asked me where we think we’re going. I don’t know where we’re going. Every step of the way, I didn’t know what comes next. I didn’t know where we were going but I say to her, “We go to United States.” Just to get rid of her, you know, so I could go to sleep. She said, “Oh, well that’s what I manage.” And I’m half asleep, now I’m thinking, what this woman manager store or something why is she telling me this? Why won’t she leave me alone? I want to sleep. And then she say, “I manage the office that sends Bosnian refugees to the United States.”

I am awake now. This is first person I meet in Split? The person who can get me legally to the United States?  And that’s how it worked. A Jewish organization sponsor me and Dino to come to America. You know, Jews and Muslims, we have had long history together. Like in 1400’s both of us pushed out of Spain. Well, during this war when the Serbian army set fire to libraries and other buildings, it is Muslims who run into the synagogue to save the sacred and priceless Jewish text. And now it is a Jewish organization sending me and Dino to America.

When I look back on it all now, over three years fighting a war, over three months escaping, I can’t say that good did not come out of it. I am here. My family is safe. We are in America and we are safe. And strangely enough, it is the haters who made me realize who I am. In Bosnia, I, I don’t know much about my village. I’m not that interested. But as the war and coming to the U.S. I start to get curious about my background. Why people hate me? Who are we anyway? And in U.S. I study Islam. And I find a mosque where I can study with other people, which is a good thing because Islam, I tell you, it is a religion of much discipline. It helps to help other people teaching, you practice with. And our mosque, our mosque join with Christian church and Jewish synagogue and we meet every week, six years now, to understand each other. We are becoming friends. And I can tell you it is better to live your life in community.

I…I am one of the lucky ones.

A Journey Story

by Storyteller Patricia Coffie

 

Story Summary:

 Storyteller, Patricia Coffie, learns that traveling to understanding is part of traveling from one physical place to another.  Understanding involves listening first.  Listen to what is said, to tone of voice, to body language and to the silences. Some colleagues of Pat’s give her feedback on a joke she told and help her realize that change, based on understanding, takes action.  Change for the better is always possible.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: A-Journey-Story

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Have you had the opportunity to examine your assumptions about race?  Have you taken the opportunity?
  2.  When you listen, do you listen for reaffirmation of what you already think you know or do you listen to learn something new?
  3.  Can learning take place all your life long?
  4.  Can you hear one thing while others hear something different?

Resources:

Themes:

  •  Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

Hello, my name is Patricia Coffie. And in 2013 I took a journey that allowed me to travel much further than from one physical place to another.

It was Atlanta. I was going to Miami. I boarded my flight, I walked down, I sat down and while I’m putting my seat belt on, I said to my seatmate, “Looks like we’re going the same way for a while.” I like to be friendly but not overbearing.

And she said, “Well, yes, but I don’t know how many more times I’ll be doing this.”

I said, “Oh.”

She went on, “You know my husband and I bought this vacation home several years ago and we really enjoyed it. But, I just think I’m going to sell it. He’s been gone for a year now.” And I’m thinking, lonely. And then she continued, she said, “Yes…” She said, “So many of them are coming now.”

I said, “Are they?” And I begin to scroll through what groups might congregate in large numbers where people had vacation homes and be frightening to this woman.

And then she said, “And they bring their guns.” Now I’m revising my scrolling but not much because guns are a lot of places. But I’m going through things and then she said, “And they shoot small dogs.” I flash immediately to one of my grandfathers. He thought the only reason people had a dog was to bother him. The little, bitty, yappy ones belong to rich white people and the big attack dogs belong to the coloreds. And we were neither of them. None of those groups were just like us. And we were nervous about people who weren’t just like us. So this went through my mind.

And then I waited a couple of beats and I said to her, “Who are they?”

And she said, “The Canadians.” And I had to cover my mouth because I was startled and started laughing because she had just de-railed every group I had scrolled past. We didn’t talk anymore; we just traveled quietly to Miami. When I reached home, I told my friends and I told my family this little journey story and they found it was hilarious as I had.

And then I went to lunch with storytellers. It was a multicultural, multiracial group. And I told my little story; there was dead silence. Nobody laughed. And then the Cuban American story tellers said, “Thank you for that WASP point of view.” Now no one had ever called me a WASP before; certainly I am a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, but no one had called me that name before. I wasn’t really happy with their silence or with that reply but it gave me a lot to think about. And eventually I emailed that Cuban American storyteller and told her she had given me quite a bit to think about. She emailed back. She said she thought it was a wonderful thing that we could come together and share our stories and talk about what they meant to us.

I saw some more possibilities for that little journey story. And now I can bring a group together in a workshop or just a conversation. And I can tell that story but I don’t describe my seatmate. I don’t tell you where we’re coming from or where we’re going and I don’t answer the question, “Who are they?” Instead I ask you to jot your own answers down and then we talk about all the different answers. Some are race based, some are other groups. There’s quite a variety in who “they” might be but ultimately we come to understand that we are all “them” to somebody. It has given me a lot to think about and the opportunity to change attitude and action. As I think about the stories that I tell them what they might mean to others. I hope it gives you something to think about too.

The West Indies: Brer Rabbit Avoids Danger For A Black Family Traveling In America

by Storyteller Donna Washington

 

Story Summary:

 Donna’s father is quite a trickster, and one afternoon in the 1980’s, while her large family was traveling through the south, they ran into a potentially dangerous situation. Donna’s trickster father literally saved our lives.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  The-West-Indies-Brer-Rabbit-Avoids-Danger-For-A-Black-Family-Traveling-In-America

Discussion Questions:

  1. Have you ever traveled to a new place and felt uncomfortable?
  2. Have you ever met a person who made you uncomfortable? What did they do?
  3. Have you ever seen another person being bullied because they are a different color or culture?
  4. Have you ever seen somebody use humor to get beyond an uncomfortable situation? Why do you think humor helps us through difficult situations?

 Resources:

 Themes:

  • African American/Black History
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

My name is Donna Washington. This story is called the West Indies. It is a compilation of a piece of folklore and a personal narrative about traveling through America. It starts with a Brer Rabbit tale.

Now there came a day, when Brer Rabbit was tied up so tight you could only see his eyeballs movin’ and Brer Fox was makin’ rabbit stew. But Brer Rabbit was just laughin’ and Brer Bear said, “Why’s you laughin’?”

And Brer Rabbit said, “Wha…I can’t help it. I’m thinkin’ about my Laughin’ Place. And when I think about my Laughin’ Place, ha, ha, I gotta laugh.”

And Brer Bear said, “I want to see the Laughin’ Place. And so, they untied Brer Rabbit, and tied the rope around his neck. And he led him on into the forest until they got to a great, big ole tree and Brer Rabbit said, “Ha, hm, my Laughin’ Place is in the-yah. And Brer Bear dropped the rope and stuck his head into that hollow tree and he heard bzzzzz. He pulled his head out. There was a great, big, ole hornet’s nest right on the edge of it and on his nose. There was a great, big, ole hornet’s nest right on his nose.

And Brer Fox said, “Don’t move. I’ll git it.”

And he picked up a big stick, whacked it really hard, and broke it in half. Those hornets went up in the air and came back down and started stinging those critters all over. Well, Brer Bear and Brer Fox went running back up Cotchapie Hill.

And Brer Bear turned around and said, “Wait a minute! You said this was a Laughin’ Place and I ain’t laughin’.

And Brer Rabbit had rolled over on the grass, got that rope up of him, and he said, “Ha, ha! I said this was my Laughin’ Place and I sho’ am laughin’ haard!” And he ran off into the grass. Now that was the kind of story that I grew up with.

But what I didn’t know is that I lived with Brer Rabbit. My father was a very unusual man. Six four and one of the blackest human beings you’ll ever see in your life. He had black belts in judo, karate, hop ki do, tang su do, and taekwondo and he was in the Army. He knew how to use rifles, nunchakus, and swords. But he had a guilty secret. He didn’t know how to dress at all. When he wasn’t wearing a uniform, he had on black socks, sandals, ripped up shorts and a ratty t-shirt.

My mother is five foot two. She is always very well put together. She’s beautiful. She’s light skinned. She’s very, very lovely.

When I was a child, because my father was in the Army, we moved every three years. And my father had an attitude about America and it was this, “I fought for this country. You’re gonna see it.”

And so, we went across country in this giant van. Now we had two dogs, a toy poodle and an Alsatian Shepherd, which is sort of like a long-haired shepherd. They’re silver and black. They look like wolves.

And they’re seven children. And it was the 80s, so we always had these… we all had these big, giant Jheri curl afros. Now the way we traveled, my dad would get in the car, and he’d become Mr. Happy Drivin’ Man. “Ha, ah, look at that! Look at that! Look at that!”

And my mother would run roughshod over the children in the back. “Stop that. Sit down. Don’t talk to him. Move over.”

And the dogs would sleep in front, where we’d taken the seats out. Well, at one point in the 80s, we were moving from Oklahoma to Virginia by way of Florida. And we would get up at 0 dark 30, which is before the sun and we would travel. And my mother would hand out fruit. And then, when it got a little later, we’d stop and have breakfast. Well, at one point we got to our location so late, my mother couldn’t buy any fruit. Everything was closed. And we got up so early, she couldn’t buy fruit. Everything was still closed. None of us had combed those giant Jheri curl afros. They were twisted all over our heads.

My father came out of the hotel. “Huh, ha! Time to go.”

And my mother. She got out of the hotel. She was wrinkled. Aaaa! We get in the car; all the children fall asleep. Going across country, my father doesn’t care if anybody’s listening to him, “Look at that, look at that, look at that! Ha!”

My mother, “Keee! We must stop and get coffee.”

My father says, “Okay.”

Well, about an hour later, we all woke up and there was no food. And World War III broke out in the back of the van. “Mom, he’s touching me! Mom, he’s hitting me! Mom, he’s doing this! Mom!”

My mother says, “Shut up!” She turns to my father. “We must stop and get coffee.”

My father said, “Okay.”

And he turns off the road. Now, we were on this little two-lane highway somewhere in the south. He turns off, onto, like, a little… what was like a path, gravel road.

And my mother says, “Where are you going?”

He said, “It’s an adventure. Huh, ha!”

And off we go on this gravel road. All seven of us have are our, our faces braced against the… pressed against the windows, wondering where we are. We go up… we end up in front of what looks like a little hiker’s station, and the place is falling apart. The wood is really weathered. It looks like something out of a movie. And the shingles are all peeled up on the roof. And sitting there on the porch, two older white gentleman playing checkers.

Well, I can just imagine what they saw. This giant bus comes heaving up out of the undergrowth and then pulls up. This giant man gets out on one side. Little bitty lady, all wrinkled, gets out on the other side. And then out of the back, come one, two, three, four, five, six, seven heavily Afroed children with a wolf on a leash. By the time we finish walkin’ the dog, they were gone.

We went inside. And my mother took a lo… one look around and said, “Don’t get anything that isn’t in a wrapper,” which means we get to eat junk food for breakfast. And so, we go running to the hostess Twinkies and the hostess DingDongs. My mother gets a coke because she will not drink the coffee outa that place. My father, always, when with the local color, gets a big jar of pickled pigs’ feet. We go to the counter. We throw everything down.

The man behind the counter, his name is Sam. We know that; it’s on his pocket. He doesn’t start ringing anything up. He just looks at us. He reaches beneath the counter. And we hear a c-l-ick! And he says, “Y’all ain’t from around here, are ya?”

And my father looks at all of us and he looks at my mother and then he looks back at Sam. And he rises up to his full six foot four, and he says, “No. We are from the West Indies and we are traveling in your country.”

And Sam says, “Well, welcome to America,” and starts ringing up the food. And my father is talking about the “big sky, the big mountain.” And my mother is staring and the, the seven of us we’re trying so hard not to laugh. We are trying to keep it in, my father playing some trick on old Sam. And after everything was all rung up, we went back, and got in the car, and my father maneuvered that big old bus back down onto the road.

We ripped those Hostess Twinkies and Hostess cupcakes. We thought it was the most hysterical thing we’d ever seen. My father tricked old Sam.

And I realize, that at that point in my life, when we had all been in so much danger, and my father who has tried to kill you 25, 35 different kinds of ways could have made any choice in the world.

I had seen Brer Rabbit doin’ some of his finest work.

Election Night:  How President Barack Obama’s Elections Changed My Life

by Storyteller Donna Washington

 

Story Summary:

The night Obama was elected to the presidency, Donna was a lone black woman in a very conservative part of the country. She discovered that it is possible be in a foreign land in her own country. She also found out that the world is full of people with good hearts.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:Election-Night-How-President-Barack-Obamas-Elections-Changed-My-Life

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Have you ever been scared in a new place?
  2.  Have you ever reached out to someone who was uncomfortable?
  3.  What does it mean to be brave? Does it have anything to do with being scared?
  4.  Have you ever felt like a group of people disliked you for no good reason? Who and why?

Resources:

 Themes:

  • African American/Black History
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
  • Workplace

Full Transcript:

My name is Donna Washington and this story is called Election Night.

In 2008, right before the presidential election, I was touring through a very conservative part of North Carolina. And the first day I got there, I was told by my sponsor not to be concerned, but the FBI was in town because someone in the community had been burning crosses on the lawns of the six elderly couples that were left in the county. They were African-American. And I thought, “Well, that’s terrible, because it’s terrible.”

But I never thought about it really having an impact on me. I mean, I was just there visiting. I kept working in high schools and middle schools over the course of the next few days and it was amazing. I saw as all these girls with Sarah Palin glasses and McCain-Palin signs everywhere.  And I was so excited because everybody was really excited about the election.

And on election night, on Tuesday night, I got back into the area where my hotel was, right around 4:30. And I pulled up to a drive-through, at a fast food restaurant that normally is open until 2:00 a.m. And there was a big sign on the, the speaker that said they were gonna close at 7:00.

And I thought, “I bet it’s because they have teenagers, and they all want to go home and watch the election. That’s cool.”

So, when I got up to the window to collect my food, I, I asked the young man behind the window, I said, “So, why are you guys closing at 7:00?”

And he said (and I quote), “In case they riot.”

And I had a moment, because I was fairly certain I didn’t become less black from the time I ordered the food to the time I got to that window. But somehow, me sitting there as a black person, it didn’t occur to him that he was talking about me. And that’s because, during that election, there was all this hyperbole and all this anger and fear that was going around, and black people ceased to be black people. We became this nameless cloud of doom that was going to descend.

And all I could think was, “There are only six elderly black people in this county. What are they going to do? Gather together somewhere and menace the street corners?”

So, I didn’t say anything. I just kind of felt that’s funny, that’s kind of funny. And I took my food and drove back over to the hotel but there was no place to park. The, the parking was full. So, I, I managed to find a place to put my car. And I got out of the car and I couldn’t figure out why Tuesday night, there were so many cars. And then it occurred to me, there is a big, flat screen TV in there. I bet they’re watching the election. And as soon as I got closer, I could see through the window that Fox News was on and the room was packed. And that’s when a lot of things going on in that community hit me.

And the first thing I thought was, “There are people burning crosses on the lawns of the black families here. Some of them may very well be in that room. And there are people who know who’ve been doing it and they have not seen fit to tell the authorities.”

And I was terrified to walk through that lobby and I thought, “I can’t do this. I’m going to go in the back door.”

Because my room was right up the lobby and I didn’t want them to know where I was. But even before I began to take that step back, to back away from that, that door, an image of my great-grandma Topsy came into my mind.

And, I swear to you, she was standing next to me. And I could hear her voice from segregated Texas saying to me, “Yo’ money is the same colla as dey money. If you cain’t go in the front door and sit where you want to sit, then you don’t have no business going off in there.”

And I thought to myself, “Someday I am going to die. And on the other side of that, my great-grandmother Topsy is going to be waiting for me. And if I go in the back door, I will have to spend eternity trying to explain the choice… or I could spend 10 seconds and just walk the lobby.”

Mmm. Squared my shoulders, took my little bag, walk the lobby. I cannot tell you if anyone was looking at me or not. I don’t remember. I just had my eyes focused (with my little bag) on the hallway that led to the door, and I got into my room. I closed the door. My, my dinner fell out of my hand, my purse slipped off my arm, and I realized I was shaking. And I was sweating, and I couldn’t catch my breath and I didn’t know what was happening. And I realized, I was having a panic attack.

And I kept telling myself, “Calm. Down. Just calm down.”

And, eventually, I did catch my breath and everything calmed down and I had my dinner. And I stayed up and the election was over. And I was really wanting to be excited but I was right off the lobby, and I didn’t dare make any noise.

Fast forward four years. I’m down south in North Carolina. I’m in Romney-Ryan country. And Clint Eastwood had just done that thing where he talked to an empty chair at the RNC and said the people where I was, around in Romney-Ryan country, that thought it was a great idea to lynch the chairs from the trees, because apparently that’s reasonable political speech. And I didn’t have any trouble in the community. No one said anything crazy to me. And that Tuesday night. I went, I actually got a nice dinner. And I went back to my hotel room and I sat down and it was over pretty early.

And then the next morning, I went up to go and get some breakfast. And I go down there. And. Again. I just… I’m the only black face in the room. I look around. The waffle line is out the window. I’m not going to have waffles. So, I put my tray down.

And an elderly woman, elderly woman comes out of the waffle line. She walks up to me and she grabs my arm. And she says to me, “I’m so glad that’s over. Now we can talk to each other again.”

And my first thought was sarcastic, which was, “Honey! Me, you’re not talking to me. You’re wasting your time, ’cause I don’t know who you are.”

And my second reaction was sort of incredulous, like, “What have you been doing the last four years, doing or saying, that makes you need to find absolution from the first black person you see!” But I didn’t say that. I move right into being angry.

And I, I thought, “Again! You want to go back. Back to talking like there was nothing going on in our country? Like there are no undertones. I cannot go back. I will not go back and pretend people haven’t said the most horrible things to me over the last four years. I will not go back and pretend that all of the things that have happened around me didn’t happen. I won’t go back and pretend that my neighbors aren’t lynching black mannequins from the trees and going, “It’s not personal or racist. I’m not doing that anymore. If you want to talk to me, we have to go forward from here.”

And then I realized that that’s what she was trying to do… She had gotten out of the waffle line, walked over to the first and only black person in the room. And taking me by the arm, she had, in fact, “un-othered” me.

And I just looked at her and thought, “I hope that I am that brave.” And I smiled down at her, and I said, “Yes, we can.”

And she just lit up. She started smiling, and she just, she stood up so proud. And she wandered back over to the waffle line.

And I made two promises to myself after those two election nights. The first, I will never let anyone ever make me feel like the “other” in my own country ever again. Not allowed. And the second promise, that I will strive to be brave enough to get out of the waffle line, walk over to someone I don’t know, take them by the hand and say, “We have to talk.”

Expectations and Surprise: School Segregation and Tracking in the 1960s

by Storyteller Andy Offutt Irwin

 

Story Summary:

 Andy experienced school desegregation in the 1960s but students were “tracked” which led to a more subtle form of segregation. However, racial tracking led Andy to unexpected friendships.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Expectations-and-Surprise-School-Segregation-and-Tracking-in-the-1960s

Discussion Questions:

  1. How did legislation such as Brown v Board of Education bring about real social change?
  2. Do you think schools would have ever integrated without being forced to by law?
  3. How can tracking lower the expectations of students’ achievement?
  4. What legislation and school policies do you think are needed today?

Resources:

  • After “Brown”: The Rise and Retreat of School Desegregation by Charles T. Clotfelter
  • Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality by Jeannie Oakes
  • A list of popular books on segregation:https://www.goodreads.com/shelf/show/segregation

Themes:

  • African American/Black History
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination

Full Transcript:

Hi, I’m Andy Offutt Irwin. In 1967, at the end of my third-grade year, Mrs. Smith, my teacher, wrote on teacher’s comments there in the spring, with Sheaffer blue washable ink, fountain pen ink because she didn’t believe in ballpoint pens even though they existed. She wrote, “Andy is just slow.”

Now this story isn’t about me but it is about how this white boy experienced some of the feelings that my black friends felt during desegregation. I’m not saying that I felt what they felt but I certainly felt. By the end of my fourth-grade year, I mean, my second fourth-grade year (you heard me), um, they closed the black school during that summer. So, when my fifth-grade year came along, um, the black kids from the black school moved into the white school and, therefore, they tracked us into five groups.

Group five were the smart kids; group one were the dumb kids. I was in group two. All of the black kids from the old school came into groups one and two. They had a short interview with some white person who I’m sure scared ’em. And that’s where they were put. That’s how they segregated the schools within the school.

Well, most of my friends were black because there were only a couple of white kids in group two and they’re both in prison. And we became friends. I became friends, in particular, with a guy named Johnny Norrington. And then in my fourth-grade year, I mean fifth grade year, uh, there was Cynthia Banks. Cindy and I both moved up to third group together and then she went on to group four. I could tell she was one of the smartest kids that I knew in those groups. She went on to be one of the smartest kids in high school and went on to be our class president in 1977.
And that’s kind of how desegregation worked – the legal integration of schools worked. When we came into the eighth grade, all of the kids in the same county from the eighth grade were in the same school. That school had been the old black high school and, therefore, half the faculty, at least, had taught at the all black high school. And desegregation and integration were working. I’m not saying we were plural yet but it was happening. And by the time we were seniors, my friend Terry Kelly (who’s black), he and I were the leads in “Bye, Bye Birdie.” I played Albert Peterson; he played Birdie. And by the time Terry and I went to college together (and we were roommates together all through school), we crammed four years of college into six years to get people to stop forgetting about that he was black and I was white.

And by the time “now” happens that people my age have grandchildren (not that I have grandchildren) but the people who got married when they were 10 years old, they have grandchildren. Those grandchildren don’t remember what it was like and don’t even really know what happened. In my town Covington, Georgia, we have a black Superior Court Judge; we have an African-American sheriff. We’ve had a black mayor, sitting mayor, when the previous mayor had to step down. And the mixed city council elected him mayor to fill out the term. And that’s what’s going on in my new South, thanks to legalized desegregation.

Learning at the Dinner Table

by Storyteller Bill Harley

 

Story Summary:

 Bill’s mother and father came from opposite ends of the political spectrum which meant that his mother and father’s family did as well. Bill’s father could not tolerate the biased language that was spoken at his in-law’s dinner table. Then, one Thanksgiving dinner, Bill’s father can take the bigotry no longer and speaks out. Bill learns a valuable lesson about the importance of taking a stand.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Learning-at-the-Dinner-Table

Discussion Questions:

  1. What lessons about race and other differences have you learned from your family? What spoken and unspoken beliefs are there?
  2. Are you aware of different racial and ethnic beliefs in your family? Are there examples of tolerance and intolerance clashing?
  3. Have you ever been in a situation where someone speaks outright prejudice and racism or speaks in coded intolerant language? What are different ways of approaching that language or belief when you hear it?

 Resource:

  • Racism Learned at an Early Age Through Racial Scripting by Robert Williams

 Themes:

  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name is Bill Harley. I have a theory that what’s honored at the table, at the dinner table, is who we become. I think about that, particularly, with my kids because, uh, they know that it’s their job to be funny so they’re always trying to make milk come out of someone’s nose. But more than that, there’s really questions about how we act in the world.

My dad, uh, was a New Deal Democrat. And his father had been a principal and the superintendent of schools and then he became a doctor and he died quite young. Uh, but he had married into… my grandfather married into this rock-ribbed Republican family and it was very conservative. Uh, there was all those changes that happened between Republicans and Democrats at that period. But there’s a lot of evidence that that side of the family was instrumental in founding the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana. And my grandfather was quite different from that. And my dad was a New Deal Democrat. He was the only person in his high school when the principal asked in a convocation, “Who here would vote for Franklin Delano Roosevelt?” In 1936, my father stood up and said, “I would.” And that’s the way he was.

I remember going to, uh, Sunday afternoon dinners at my great-grandmother’s house where all that side of the family came. All the Republicans and the business leaders and the more conservative people and then my dad would show up. And he would have to sit there in the living room, uh, with all those other folks, all the guys, while the women were in the kitchen and we would have to just sit there and take it. And the men would argue; they would argue politics. My grandmother would say, “I just hate politics!”

And my father would just kind of… have to bite his tongue through the whole thing. And then he married into a family that was just like that. His, his, uh, father-in-law, my grandfather, was a hardware salesman. He hated Franklin Delano Roosevelt ’til the day he died in 1973 and he was prejudiced. He was biased.

He did not use the “n” word all the time but I’d heard him use it. He, uh, favored the more polite term for the same meaning, which was colored. Um, he would talk about colored folks in an offhand way. There was a man named Bill (I don’t even know his last name) who did odd jobs around the house. And, uh, he referred to my grandfather as Mr. Wolf and my grandmother would bring him a plate, uh, and have him sit on the back porch when he was done with his chores to eat, to share a meal with him. So that was hard on my dad. And I think it was probably hard on my grandfather. None of this was spoken about though. It was just this, um, milieu,  this, this thing that you grow up in. And the truth is, uh, in Indianapolis where I grew up, we were surrounded by it too. The man next door to me was an incredible racist. And I knew that he was very kind to me but my dad didn’t like me to go over there but he just said, “Don’t go over there.” He didn’t explain why.

This is all unspoken, uh, or unclear to me until 1964. I remember sitting in the kitchen, uh, shortly after dinner on that night and the radio was on and the kitchen table and my dad turned it off and swore and walked out of the kitchen. And they just reported that Medgar Evers, who was a leader of the NAACP in Mississippi had been shot. And I knew that that was wrong and I knew that that was bad but I didn’t understand. My dad didn’t stop to explain it to me. It wasn’t for kids. There I was in fourth grade and it was, uh, the Freedom Summer when SNCC organizers (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), uh, had young black people and young white folks go door to door to register, end… endangering, endangering themselves, breaking the law so that they could change, though I really learned on Thanksgiving dinner.

Thanksgiving dinner is a time when everybody comes and shares and there’s all these rituals that we follow. And my grandparents, those conservative grandparents, uh, came to our house and they stayed at our house in my brother’s room and my brother had to sleep with me. And my other grandmother came, my father’s mother came, and the meal was prepared. And I look back on it now and I can imagine how hard it was for my father and his father-in-law, my grandfather, my mother’s father to sit at the table with each other. And I can imagine my grandfather who is very clear about the way the world was just saying things just to bait my father a little bit about all the unrest and turmoil that was going on. I don’t remember what was said until the very end of the meal. I remember my father was at the end of the table and my grandmother with my grandfather was across from me sitting next to my mom. And my grandfather made some offhand comment about, “Well, you know, you really can’t trust those colored people, you know. They’re the ones that are causin’ all the trouble; they’re the ones that are breakin’ all the laws.”

This is the kind of offhand thing as if we all agreed with this. He needed affirmation. And my father said, “That’s not true.”

So, it was a little bit of a throwing down the gauntlet. I never heard it spoken open like that and the table went quiet. And my grandfather said, Well, you know, it’s… they can’t help it. It’s just the way they are.” I see him chewing on a toothpick.

And my father said… and he swore and then he said, “Frank, that’s not true!” He called his father-in-law by the first name. He said, “That’s absolutely not true!”

And my mom said, “Max, Max!” And now all the women get up and they’re all flitting around trying to figure out how to calm the situation down. My mom says, “I’ll go get some more coffee” and my other grandmother says, “Does anybody want any more cookies?”

And my grandfather says, “Well, that’s just the way I see it.” Like it’s an opinion so I’m entitled to my opinion, whether it’s true or not.

And my father said, “For every black man that breaks the law, I can show you a dozen white men who do the same.”

And my grandfather said, “Well, that’s the way I see it.”

And he said, “Well you can’t…” My dad said, “You can’t speak like this at my table!”

And when he said that you could really feel something breaking. and I didn’t… There I was nine-years-old, 10-years-old and I didn’t really understand it except that I knew that the rules of civility and, uh, civility had been broken by my dad. Aah, now we weren’t getting along. And everybody flitted around and I don’t remember exactly what happened next. There’s that awkward silence. This is not going to get resolved. There’s no resolution to this story.

My dad went up…out of the front door and smoked a cigarette and tried to calm down. My grandfather went out the back door and chewed on a cigar and tried to calm down. And they went to bed that night and. I couldn’t hear them. No one said anything to us. I remember my brothers and I just looking down at the floor wishing we weren’t there.

My dad probably railed against his father-in-law to the daughter of the guy that he was mad at. My grandfather probably went in the bedroom with his wife and said, “I think we should leave tonight.”

So, I didn’t know what it meant then but meaning takes time. And I look back on it now and I think that as one of the most seminal, the most seminal moments in my moral education ’cause my father had broken some rule of civility to say what he thought was right at the dinner table. And after that moment, I saw my father differently and I saw the world differently. And I also saw myself differently because this was my dad and this is what’s at the table saying, “This is how things should be. We don’t talk like this.”

And so, when I heard some of my friends or teachers or anybody speak and say these out…, like, … right racist things or even the subtle coding, I knew that I was wrong if I didn’t say something. That I needed to speak up and I didn’t always because it’s hard to do. But I knew that that was something I carried with me.

That was something I learned at the dinner table and that was what was honored. So, the question I ask myself all the time is, “What’s honored at the table?”

I’m Gonna Let It Shine – It’s In All of Us

by Storyteller Bill Harley

 

Story Summary:

 Bill gathers a group of musicians together to record an album of Civil Rights freedom songs. However, they learn that they can’t assume they are all on the same page or that underlying emotions and biases aren’t in play.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Im-Gonna-Let-It-Shine–Its-In-All-of-Us

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Is it possible to separate ourselves from some of our beliefs? How do we create a dialogue in which we’re able to admit our mistakes?
  2.  What was it about Hollis Watkins that made him able to say things in a way that others could hear? Have you been in a situation where someone found a way to encourage dialogue and   admit our failings? How did they do it?
  3. Do you think we all have prejudice in us?
  4.  What made it difficult for the white musicians and the musicians of color to work together? What history and different life experiences stood between them?
  5.  What is it about music that breaks down barriers?

Resources:

  • Recording – “I’m Gonna Let it Shine – a Gathering of Voices for Freedom” available at Round River Records and www.billharley.com.
  • Sing for Freedom by Guy and Candie Carawan (SingOut Publications) was the sourcebook for the recording.
  • Everybody Say Freedom by Bob Reiser and Pete Seeger (Norton) tells the story of the songs used in the Civil Rights Movement
  • Parting the Waters by Taylor Branch (stirring accounts of how songs were used in Civil Rights demonstrations and rallies)

Themes:

  • African American/Black History
  • Civil Rights Movement
  • Crossing Cultures
  • European American/Whites
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name is Bill Harley. I’m a storyteller and a songwriter and an author now but before I was that, I was a community organizer and I was also a nonviolence trainer. I, uh, learned how to, uh, train people for, uh, demonstrations and, uh, civil disobedience and also work in the classroom.

Uh, and because of that, uh, when I was working with those organizations, American Friends Service Committee and other organizations, I had the opportunity to work with a lot of people who had been involved in the civil rights movement. Um, I was lucky enough to get to meet a lot of people who had worked with Dr. King:  Walter Fauntroy and Bernard Lafayette and John Lewis; uh, even lucky enough to meet Coretta Scott King and, uh, Dr. King’s father, Daddy King.

And along with that, during that process, uh, I learned a lot of freedom songs, uh, from the civil rights movement: “I’m Gonna Let It Shine,” “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around,” uh, “Hold On,” “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.” All those songs and I began to sing them with people; I used them as organizing tools myself. Uh, and listening to Pete Seeger’s 1963 concert, to this great recording of freedom songs recorded in Carnegie Hall so I kind of cut my teeth on those songs. When Martin Luther King’s birthday became a national holiday, I was concerned, uh, because those songs and that movement of nonviolence and what his work was that had such a huge influence to me, that it was really a national holiday. It wasn’t parochialized into like, okay, this is the black holiday, ’cause I really want it to be our holiday. So, I decided I was going to have a freedom sing at my house. And we invited about 25, 30 people musicians, not musicians, people who like to sing and we sang songs for about two hours. And it was there in the middle of January, that the room was steamy and we were singing songs and it was just great. I felt like we raised the house off the foundations so we did that for year after year.

And then, um, a rabbi at a local synagogue asked us if we would do it there. And we ended up, for a number of years, having four or five hundred people come. And it was so good, it was so powerful, I decided that I wanted to make a recording of this… of these songs, not in a formal, uh, performance setting but just to put a bunch of people together and sing them so that they would be sing able for other people.

And I started to ask my friends if they would sing on this recording and they said, Of course,” uh, but I was concerned. I wanted it to be everybody. I wanted it to be black and white together not being black or white but also brown. There’s more and more Hispanic folks in our area. Um, and so, I started to call… reach out to people in my community of different, uh, different backgrounds.

And then I called up Guy Carawan. Guy, uh, just died, um, several months ago and he was a white guy from California but he came to the south and became, uh, involved in the movement. He was a music director for years and years at the, uh, Highlander Center where people came to learn how to organize. And Guy, along with Pete Seeger brought “We Shall Overcome” to the movement and “I’m Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table.” And so, I called Guy up and I said, “Guy, I’m thinking about doing this. I’m trying to figure out who to invite.

And he said, “Well, why don’t you just invite the original people.

And I said, “Really!”

He said, “Yeah, here’s a list of names. Here’s a… here’s a bunch of people. The Freedom Singers, this quartet of, of, uh, young black people that went around, traveled the country raising money for Freedom Summer and all those things. And here’s some people who were sneak organizers and here’s a woman who was very close to Dr. King. Why don’t you just call them up? They can all sing. Just ask them.”

Which was kind of overwhelming ’cause I really was a white… a young white guy from the south who had no business doing that, except that I thought it was important and I wanted them to make them our songs. So, I did. I just sucked it up and started to make one phone call after another and almost all of them said, “Yeah, we’ll come.”

I said, “We can pay your way. We’ll make sure you have good food. And they said they would come, which is quite a testament to them because there’s really an issue of cultural appropriation about these songs.

There’s a question about whose songs are these. And it’s a legitimate question but I wanted it…  to make it a bigger tent. And I talked WGBH in Boston into bringing their mobile recording unit down to this retreat center in Rhode Island. I got them to do it for free. I talked to all these people and we took a second mortgage out of our house to pay for this recording and I was way over my head. And I called Guy up. I said, “I’ve got all these people comin’.”

And he said, “You do?”

I said, Uh huh.”

He said, “Well, that’s going to be interesting!”

And I didn’t know exactly what he meant until everybody came there and I realized I had bitten off a lot more than I could chew. First of all, all these people who had been involved in the movement who I only heard of (and I done all my background work on them and gospel music and the history of the movement), they came with their own stories. And there were a lot of unresolved stories there. And then my friends, many of them from the north came and many of them were white and some were people of color – Hispanic and African-American or mixed, whatever, you know, te, whatever we all are.

And that first meal, the first rule in organizing is make sure the food is good. And I had a great caterer and that calmed that placed down. And we immediately had a problem with the recording area because what I wanted was wrong. And we decided we had to do it in a barn but the barn wasn’t heated so I had to go out and get all these heaters to bring in, to heat up the barn.

But everybody looked at each other because this was the past and the present meeting each other. And black and white meeting each other and north and south meeting each other and we were all nervous. Now I’ve been an organizer long enough to know I needed to int… to figure out a way to introduce this. And so, at the end of the meal, I had everybody sit on the floor. There’s probably maybe 30 of us all together including the engineers and everybody and I said, “I want to go around the circle. And I want you to introduce yourself and say one thing, uh, one of your hopes and one of your fears. And it was really awkward.

Uh, the, the white folks, um, were afraid of doing the wrong thing and saying the wrong thing and afraid of being misunderstood and, uh, the, the black folks were scoping people out. Was this just another, uh, incident in which white people were tryin ’to make ’em feel good about something’? And what are they going to do with these songs? Uh, and then I had some friends, uh, from the north, some African-American friends from the north, who were kind of in between, watching all of this go on. And none of us knew what was going to happen. And people were very polite when we are going around the circle and they were saying things to be safe. But that’s no way to sing freedom songs and trying to make sure that you didn’t make any mistakes is not the way to do what’s right. And we… I could feel the tension in the room rising and thinking, “This is beyond myself. This is beyon…; I can’t fix this.”

And then it was Hollis Watkins’ turn and Hollis, um, oh, he’s probably 50 then, I guess. And he was in his early 20s in the early 60s. He was a sneak organizer; he’s from southern Mississippi. Uh, he was one of the last people to see Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney, uh, before they drove off in a car and, uh, were killed by the Ku Klux Klan. And he said, uh, to me, “I told them not to go!”

And Hollis is to this day, an organizer, uh, in Jackson, Mississippi. Not the best singer but maybe the most moral person there. And when he came…, when it came to his time, he said, “Well, here’s my fear. My fear is that we’re not going to admit that we’re racist. And someone this weekend is going to say something that’s hurtful and has racism in it. And then when someone calls him on it, they’re going to deny it because they’re say, “I’m not a racist. And then we’re not going to get anywhere and we’re just going to draw lines and we won’t get through what we’ve got to get to. So, what I want us all to admit right now is that we are racist.” He said, “How could we not be. Look where we’ve been raised. Everybody in this room doesn’t want to be. We’re all here because we don’t want to be but we are. It’s not who we want to be but we need to admit it. And then when we admit it, we can get past it.”

And you could feel everyone in that room breathe. That, suddenly, the black folks who had brought so much and were… and their lives have been endangered. I realized later, that those people, really, in a sense, had post-traumatic shock that they had been through this cathartic moment in their lives when they’re very young and some of ’em had never… that was the moment of their lives. But that opened and there was this huge relief for us for, for someone like me, that I might make a mistake but that shouldn’t keep me from trying. And we did make mistakes. I made huge mistakes during that weekend but somebody said, “Bill, that’s not right.”

I remember every… somebody said in a recording, “That sounds like church!”

And I said, “This is not about church!”

And they all looked at me. Well, their understanding of what church was and mine was, you know, being raised a white Methodist in the, the, you know, white denomination. Those are two different things. Church meant yeah!

And it took us a long time but we got through it all. There was one moment because I had asked… It was during the anti-apartheid movement, I’d asked a South African poet to come and teach us a couple South African freedom songs. And there, it was like 9 o’clock on a Saturday night in this barn. He taught us “Senzenina,” which is, uh, why am I treated like… this way because of the color of my skin. It’s like a prayer. (Singing) Senzenina, senzenina, senzenina. Senzenina. And all of us there were working in this space together learning a new thing, learning a new way to be, learning a song that none of us know.

And that had a huge effect on me when I realized that I could drop this notion of I’m not racist. I can say, “I don’t want to be and I’m better at it but I don’t hold that up anymore.”

And as soon as we say that I’m not racist, we’re forced to defend our behavior. But what we can say is, “Yeah, I am. It’s in me but it’s not who I want to be. How are we going to get through this together?”

A Child’s Eye View

by Storyteller Cynthia Changaris

 

Story Summary:

 Growing up in Charleston, South Carolina during Jim Crow, Cynthia is baffled by why Black people get to ride in the “best part” of the bus, the back of the bus with the great view out the rear window. She plays with a young boy named Sammy when his mother comes to help Cynthia’s mother with the ironing. Cynthia doesn’t understand when her mother tells her that Sammy is dead and that he died because he couldn’t get to a “colored hospital” in time. When she was 12, Cynthia’s mother takes her to an integrated church service in Winston Salem. Cynthia is able to sense the danger but her heart feels full and happy to be in this circle of women.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: A-Childs-Eye-View

Discussion Questions:

  1.  How did white children in the Jim Crow South learn to treat people unfairly? As a young child what were Cynthia’s parents teaching her?
  2. When were you first aware of color? When did you first become aware of injustice? How did you learn who was supposed to be “superior” and who was “inferior”?
  3. Are transportation and health systems free of discrimination today?
  4. Why are churches and other places of worship still so segregated today?

Resources:

  • Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Tell About Life in the Segregated South by William Henry Chafe and Raymond Gavins
  • Deluxe Jim Crow: Civil Rights and the American Health Policy, 1935-1954 by Karen Kruse Thomas

Themes:

  • African American/Black History
  • Civil Rights Movement
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

My name is Cynthia Changaris. I was born in 1948 in Charlotte, North Carolina in the deeply segregated South. And I have some memories from that childhood that I wanted to share with you today. One of my earliest memories, I was so excited because mother was taking me across the town of Charlotte by bus. I had never ridden the bus. And I know how short I was because when we sat down in those two front seats that face each other, my old feet didn’t reach the floor. I could kick the bus; you know, make good noise, which mother didn’t like. And I saw people getting on the bus and going to the back. And every time I saw someone get on the bus and go to the back, it was someone who was a black person and I said, “Mama, why do they get to sit in the back? I want to sit in the back.”

She said, “Shh! I don’t agree with it. Just hush!”

And a man overheard my conversation and he said, “Ma’am, I’ll take her to the back of the bus if you want me to.” So, I took his hand. I went to the back of the bus. He helped me stand up on the seat so I could look out the wide window and look at all the cars and the people and everything. Ah! He prevented me from falling down when the bus lurched and I was happy. But I kept that memory of who got to sit where and why did it happen.

And I knew my mom didn’t agree with it but she didn’t say anything straight out to me either. Now when I got a little bit older, six years old, I went to school. But before you go to school you have to go get new dresses. So, I got six brand new dresses that I twirled around in one evening. And then after the dresses, the health department. I had to go get typhoid shots and I was not happy about that. However, we had to sit a long time in that health department on these wooden benches. And on this side, there were two water fountains. One said colored, one said white. There were two women’s restrooms. One said colored. One said white.

I said, “Mama why are there two water fountains?”

She said, “I don’t agree with it but that’s the way things are.”

I said, “Mama, if I drink from the colored one, am I going to turn colored?” I just wanted to do things right, you know, but I never forgot that memory of thinking this is really not right and it’s not… it’s not the way I think things should be. Just a little girl but I was confused.

Now I… also around that time, had… my mom had a maid. Her name was Laura Ruth. Laura Ruth came to iron for my mama and to babysit for me when Mama couldn’t stand it anymore, which I expect was fairly regular. I don’t know, I was a pretty active kid. Now I didn’t like Laura Ruth because she was very strict and she would yell at me sometimes but I did love her boy. His name was Sammy. Me and Sammy used to get behind the bushes next to the house where we had this little fort. And we would trade off Crockett… Davy Crockett hats, you know, the kind with a raccoon tail on ’em and we would sing that old song that we heard on TV every night.

And we had our pistols in our holsters and we were protecting the world from everything. I loved Sammy and every time he came with his mama, I was happy but there was one day he didn’t come with his mama and I was still quite young. I think between five and six.

And, um, I said, “Mama, where’s Sammy?”

She said, “Honey, he died!”

I said, “Oh, Mama! Well, will he be here next week?”

She said, “No, honey! Died means he’s not going to be here again.”

I really couldn’t capture all that in my brain. I know I didn’t take it in but I do remember listening to everything. And I know I heard my mama talking to my aunt Bet on the phone and she said, “Oh, Bet, if that child would’ve had a good doctor, he wouldn’t have bled to death from getting his tonsils out.” Now my mother would never have told me that but I know I overheard it and something in my heart went “crack” about it. I knew it was wrong and I knew it was because Sammy was black and he didn’t get to have a good doctor.

Now I grew on up in the segregated South. I can remember lots of other strange feelings like if I saw a whole host of black boys walking toward me, I remember feeling nervous and wondering, “Why do I feel nervous? They’re just people.” But I was kind of going inside myself trying to figure all this out.

I was 12 years old when this incident occurred. Mama and I went up to Winston-Salem, North Carolina because my Aunt Sarah (we called her Sister), she had fixed it up so that the Presbyterian black women of the church and the Presbyterian white women of the church were going to hold a meeting in one of the biggest churches in Winston-Salem.

It was enormous and I remember walking in just being totally shocked how big it was. There must have been, oh, I don’t know, 20 rows of people and it was filled up but me and my mama and my Aunt Sarah were the only white people there. I noticed that I had never been in a minority before and I noticed that I kinda liked it. I kinda liked it. And I saw my mother lean over to sister and she said, “Oh, Sister, I’m so sorry that none of the women in your church came to see this and to be a part of this worship service.”

And Sister just sat while the worship service went on. I know there were prayers and songs and whatever but sister sang a solo; she had a high, high voice. It sounded like it could crack but it never did. And she sang the song from Ruth, “Entreat me not to leave thee nor to turn from following thee. Thy people will be my people. Thy God, my God.” I always loved that song; I heard it more than once.

And when that finished, we passed out candles. Mama and me and Sister on the front row – everybody else behind – so we were the last ones to leave but the first to get lit up and this was my favorite part. When the lights were turned down on the church and the lights flowed upward from our candles as they lit row to row to row to row, it was a glow that just touched my heart in every way. We marched out – the last ones to get out the door – and we were singing, “We are climbing Jacob’s Ladder. We are climbing higher, higher. We are climbing ever upward!”

And as we marched out the door, there were six police cars with their blue lights going like this and men milling around. And I said, “Mama, what is it?”

She said, “Shh! Keep singing!” And I did because she was firm and we sang all the way up on a hill and we made a huge circle and we looked inward. As we looked inward, every face there glowed. Those candles glowed all of us in a beauty I won’t ever forget. And we sang, “We are climbing Jacob’s Ladder. Soldiers of the Cross. Oh, may we go higher and higher!”

Incarceration

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Incarceration
A Short Video Story
by Anne Shimojima

Introduction:

Have you ever wondered what life would be like if the government had imprisoned your entire family? For Anne Shimojima, this was the experience of her grandparents and their children. In this touching story, Anne tells of what life was like behind the barbed wire fences and the inadequate housing. Looking past what is unspoken, Anne reveals details of life for Japanese Americans in incarceration camps during WWII.

Summary:

Curious as to her family’s experiences in incarceration camps during WWII, storyteller Anne Shimojima explains how she uncovered details to her family’s past. For whatever reason, many Japanese Americans do no talk about their experiences during this time. Anne was able to dig into her family history and speak with relatives who then shared details of what life was like in these camps.

Armed with a deeper and more personal understanding of what her grandparents had endured in the incarceration camp, Anne reveals a hidden world when she is able to describe the camp itself. She explains how she was brought closer to her grandparents and better understands the indignities they suffered, the sacrifices they made, and the hopes they had for future generations.

Classroom Applications:

  • Invite grandparents of students to come to class and share a story from their life
  • Explore geneology or create a family tree
  • Watch videos or read literature the helps students to better understand historical events..

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Explore our many other RaceBridges Studio videos and lessons

for Asian American month or any time of the year.

 

Just Hair: Finding Out the Importance of Your True Roots

 

Story Summary:

 A chance encounter is an unexpected blessing for a teenager, who discovers that true strength is rooted within, extending down into the roots of the ancestors.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Just-Hair-Finding-Out-the-Importance-of-Your-True-Roots

Discussion Questions:

  1. There are many forms of laughter: discomfort, joy, fear, amusement, sarcastic, etc. What type of laughter would you attribute to the students in the library? What dynamic did it set up between them and Diane? What are a few responses you would have had to the situation?
  2. Invisibility is a much-desired attribute among superheroes. However, there are times when we, too, search for the cloak of concealment. When have you ever wanted to be “invisible”? In what situation and for what purpose?
  3. The themes of belonging, identity, shame, and protecting one’s self can be found in the story of each human being. What other themes did you connect to in this story? Did the story help you to remember something that is or has happened to you?

Resources:

  • Every Tongue Got to Confess by Zora Neale Hurston
  •  African American Folk Tales for Young Readers by Richard Young and Judy Dockrey Young
  • Pink and Say by Patricia Polacco

Themes:

  • African American/Black History
  • Bullying
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Identity
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name is Diane Macklin and this is a story, Just Hair.

If you’re driving down Route 82 in Hopewell Junction, New York in 199… in 1986, you would go past this ranch white house with green shutters, and you would think it was just a house. No indeed. This was the place where anyone with African roots could get their hair done by my mother. And that was me because we were the second black family to move into our neighborhood. My mother was the oldest of 12 children, and she did everyone’s hair. So, my hair was always done perfectly. There was no need in town for a Jet magazine or even anyone who could do anything with my hair. But it didn’t matter.

And as I grew up, well, things started to change a little bit. In high school, I no longer wanted the perfect parts, the braids, the ponytails. I watched this show on TV called The Facts of Life. My favorite show and there was this character Tootie. Now she would roll around on her rollerblades. She had these cute little pigtails and she had a brown complexion like me but she looked young. But then there was Blair and she had this flowing blond hair. And she was sophisticated; she was so much older. I wanted to be like Blair. So, one morning when my mom was doing my hair I said, “Mom, can you do my hair so it’s out. This is my ninth-grade year, Mom. I really want to wear my hair out.”

Now, my mom is from Mississippi. She’s from the South. She never says, “No.”

She goes on about her back. She goes on about this, that and the other until you’re saying, “No, Mom, that’s ok, that’s ok. Don’t, don’t worry about it.”

But she looked at me. “No.” I thought maybe she had a bad night at work. Maybe she woke up on the wrong side of the bed. That was okay because I could wait her out. I did wait a couple of weeks.

“Mom, I was thinking that maybe you could do my hair so it’s out today.”

But, again, she looked. “No.”

Now, I’m in high school, ninth grade and I ride a bus. It takes a while to get to school. I knew that if I took my hair out on the bus, and remembered where she had parted it, how she had braided it (whether it was over or under), I could take out my hair on the bus and put it back. She’ll never know.

So, one morning I got on the bus and I scooted down in the seat and started to take out my hair. Now, my friend across from me saw what I was doing and she just watched, and watched. And then we pulled up at our high school. Now always in high school, you did not go inside until the bell rang. Whether it was snow, sleet, hail, rain, everyone stood outside the building until the bell rang. But as soon as the bus pulled up and stopped, I stood up. And I heard, “Aah!” ’Cause back then no one had seen hair like mine, this rich hair, out because you didn’t even see it on TV. You didn’t even see it on commercials, and I felt like a million dollars.

I even had my own music playing, my own soundtrack, ’cause as I walked on the bus everyone just followed me. “Uuh!”

And I was going, “Oom, aah, and, Oom, aah!” I just felt… I had never felt like that before actually. And I struck a pose before I got off the bus, and they just sat there staring. They couldn’t believe it. I walked off the bus and then, who0om, everyone parted like the Red Sea and my friends came over.

“Can I touch your hair? Can I touch your hair?”

“Are your hands clean?”

And all day, I rode this cloud nine. And then, towards the end of the day, though, I had to go to the library to get a book out for research purposes, and I saw that there were some lower-class rooms from the middle school. They were visiting. They hadn’t seen my hair. So, I walked in, I struck a pose, and they no longer stared at their teacher. They stared at me.

“Yeah! They never saw hair like this.”

I walked in and then I heard, “Ah, whoo, whoo, whoo, ha!”

It wasn’t quite what I was expecting. Then the whole class broke out in laughter. Then I started to hear the words. “Afro Puff.  Brillo Pad.”

They were talking about my hair. And there were other names, that, even now, I don’t want to repeat.

I couldn’t remember what I went in that library for but I wasn’t going to care. I went to the shelf, picked up a book, checked it out, walked out, had my head up high, looked at them, so they knew they didn’t get me.

But as soon as I left that library, my head dropped. On that bus, I remembered how she parted it. I turned my head a little to the window because, you know, how you do sittin’ down, it’s easier.  A few tears fallin’ down. I went inside. It was as if I never took my hair out.

And I decided, I was going to wear an invisible armor and from that day on, I did. I pr… constructed an armor that you could not see me. Worked so well that, one day I was at the grocery store, and I was juggling more groceries than I needed to in my arms and there was a woman and her daughter. Her daughter looked, and young people can see past the invisible armor. They have a special vision. She saw that if she moved her groceries up, on the conveyor belt, I could put mine down. That’s what that young lady did. But the mother turned around and, well, I had my invisible armor on and she couldn’t see me, because she took her arm and she moved those groceries back in place, so I could not put my groceries down. The young lady, she turned beet red. She looked embarrassed. I tried to let her know it was okay because she didn’t know, I was wearing my armor. I wore it for many years and then one day, I was in that store and I heard someone comin’ up behind me. And this time I was smart; I did have a cart.

“Young lady, young lady.” But no one talked to me in the store.

“Young lady, young lady.” But no one talked to me in store.

“Young lady.”

I turned around. There was a woman with a rich, mahogany complexion like mine.

“Do you know where you’re from?”

“Hopewell Junction?”

“No! Where you’re from in Africa?”

My school didn’t teach us anything about Africa. And even during Black History Month, there was maybe a book in the library, on a shelf, but that was about it.

“You need to find out where you’re from ’cause when I saw you, I said, ‘She looks like a Mandingo warrior woman.’ Do you know that the Mandingo have warrior women?”

I didn’t know anything about Mandingo. I didn’t even know what to say. I was speechless.

“You need to find out where you’re from?”

And she turned the corner. And I stood there for a moment absorbing what she told me and then I went to find her ’cause, clearly, she knew more than I did. And she was gone. I couldn’t find her anywhere.

And to this day, I feel like she was a little angel, came to send me a message because now I could take off that invisible armor. And I now have as my defense, as my weapon of choice, to love, to love through story, as a storyteller.

The Immigration Process vs. Pre-Wedding Bliss

 

Story Summary:

 Listen and move as this spoken word piece takes your mind and body through an insider’s/outsider’s understanding of immigration, identity, and family. The story began when Arianna and her now husband wanted to get married and had to prove, with evidence, that their love for each other was real. Complexity arose as they entered the immigration process better known as: K-1 Non-Immigrant Visa. As they hit barrier after barrier, they quickly learned how unpredictable the U. S. was about immigration,

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: The-Immigration-Process

Discussion Questions:

  1. Where in your life have you had to navigate the U.S. government to solve a problem?
  2. How does Arianna manage the immigration process in the United States? What steps does Arianna take to manage the immigration process?
  3. What evidence does Arianna use to show she is “in love?” What evidence do you have that would show you love someone in your family?

Resources:

  •  http://madeintoamerica.org/  (A Collection of family stories)
  • Immigration Stories by David A. martin and Peter Schuck (Non-fiction)
  • Mama’s Nightingale: A story of Immigration and Separation, By Edwidge Danticat

Themes:

  •  Crossing Cultures
  • European American/Whites
  • Immigration
  • Latino American/Latinos
  • Living and Traveling Abroad

Full Transcript:

My name is Arianna Ross. It was 2006. I was watching the sunset – the sky was a wash of purple and peach. I, I turned to face my boyfriend, Alexandre. He was smiling; there was a twinkle in his eye.

Right behind him was a statue of the Madonna holding baby Jesus, awash with the same colors as the sky. He looked at me, “Você quer você orar comigo? Do you want to pray with me?” We held hands and we took a deep breath in and were silent for a moment.

When I opened my eyes, he was looking at me hesitantly. And then he said to me in a very tentative voice unlike his normal voice, “Você quer ser meu noivo? Do you want to be my fiancé?”

“ABSOLUTELY!”

For the next 24 hours, we were in pure wedding bliss. We discussed where we were going to get married. The kind of food we were going to eat, the type of music we were going to have and, of course, the most important part for both of us – the ceremony. We decided that my parents would say prayers in Hebrew and that his parents would say a few prayers in Portuguese. And we would have a master of ceremonies run the entire event.

We were excited until we sat down in front of the computer. We decided that we were going to spend the first half of our life in the United States and the second half of our life in Brazil, which meant that we had to get married in both places. We turned on the computer, we loaded the USCIS website, the Immigration Services website, for the United States.

We looked up the K-1 fiancé visa. There were nine pages of instructions.

Step number 1, fill out the I-129F document in dark ink. Step 2, gather evidence that proves that you are planning on getting married and staying married. That proves, essentially, that you are in love. Evidence that proves that we are in love?

I called Immigration Naturalization Services. I asked them, “What exactly do you mean by evidence? What kind of evidence or what form of evidence? I mean, I recognize that there are people who try to dupe the system. We’re not one of those people so I would appreciate clarification?”

And the man over the telephone calmly explained to me, “Excuse me, you need, essentially, to provide simple evidence, simple evidence that proves that you are in love and you are truly planning on getting married and staying married.”

“Sir, I get that. It states that in the document, in the instructions. But what do you mean by ‘proves that we’re go… in love’ in evidence? What kind of evidence?”

“Anything you deem necessary.”

All right, I went home to the United States and I started to gather evidence. I gathered photographs, receipts, letters from my parents, letters from his parents, letters from all of our friends. I had two hundred and fifty pages of evidence when I turned in our application. I crossed my fingers and I waited.

Six months passed and we received a letter. They were telling us we had made it to the next step. We needed to turn in more documentation and more evidence. I mailed in 150 more pages and we crossed our fingers and we waited. One year and two months later, we received our interview date in Rio. I got on a plane. I met my now fiancé there and we arrived at 7:45 am at the consular office. Our appointment was not until 11:30 but I didn’t want to be late. We sat and we waited patiently. Eleven o’clock rolled around, 11:30 rolled around, 11:45 rolled around, 12:25. All of the couples had gone in and out, in and out. There was only one consular office left in the entire room when he motioned us in. We sat down and the first thing I noticed was that he was behind a Plexiglas bulletproof window and then he smiled. He had his hand…  a stack of papers.

“Here are three hundred and fifty of your four hundred pages of documentation. I would like to return them to you because I really don’t want them clogging up my filing cabinets. If you have more evidence with you, which I’m sure you do, please don’t give it to me. I believe that you are going to get married. I believe that you are in love. I would just love to know how the two of you met.”

“Ach! How the two of us mmmet?

I was ready to screech at the man! My hands actually balled into fists! And then, suddenly, I felt my normally nonverbal husband reach down and relax my fingers. He looked at me. He looked at the man and he began to tell our story. The story that we had documented in all those photographs and all those letters. By the time he was finished, I was surprised. He knew all those details.

The consular office reached underneath his desk. He grabbed his stamp and in one fell swoop, he stamped my husband’s passport.

“Welcome to the United States. I can’t give you your passport. I need to mail it to you. Do you have the self-addressed stamped envelope?”

“Yes.” We handed it to him.

He explained to us that it would arrive in five to six days and then he hoped my husband had an excellent journey. One year and six months later, my husband got off the plane. He looked at me and he smiled – a twinkle in his eye. He was wearing my favorite T-shirt. I knew that we were ready to bring joy into our world and to start our pre-wedding bliss.

A Link in the Circle: Learning to Lean on My Indonesian Family

 

Story Summary:

 What is it like to be so immersed in a culture that a lady on the bus becomes your adopted “Aunt” and a bus driver your “Brother? While Arianna Ross travelled alone through Indonesia, she discovered that sometimes family is defined by a connection and not blood. Many days Arianna lived with only the support of total strangers. Witness the similarities and differences between Arianna’s culture and theirs.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  A-Link-in-the-Circle-Learning-to-Lean-on-My-Indonesian-Family

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Where in your life have strangers become family?
  2. How do the people in the island of Banda Aceh, Indonesia define family?
  3. When the police stopped the bus that Arianna was on and searched people, what were they looking for and how did “strangers” protect Arianna?

Resources:  

  • Folk Tales From Bali and Lombok by Margaret Alibasah
  • Folk Tales from Indonesia by Dra Aman

Themes:

  • Asian American/Asians
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Identity
  • Living and Traveling Abroad
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

My name is Arianna Ross and I am a storyteller who has lived all over the world. During this journey, this story, I was living in Indonesia. It was two o’clock in the morning and I was exhausted.

The police officers had been getting on our bus every 30 minutes on the dot. I was taking the bus from Banda Aceh all the way to Medan and every 30 minutes the bus would stop. The doors were open. A police officer would get on the bus. He would walk up the bus. He would walk down the bus with his AK 47 in his hands and then he would walk off the bus… and the bus would begin again.

Usually the bus driver, he would check the people on the bus to make sure that we were OK. He would smile. He would nod his head as if to say, “Are you ok?”

I always responded with a nod back, “I’m fine.”

At two o’clock in the morning, I pulled my sarong over my hand and I leaned up against the Plexiglas window and I fell asleep for one hour.

Suddenly I felt this stabbing sensation in my arm. I heard the sound of my name being shouted and I heard the sound of a man speaking to me in a language I didn’t understand Acehnese. (I spoke Indonesian). Then suddenly, a soft voice broke through the screams. It was the woman sitting in front of me; she was saying, “It’s ok, my child. He just wants to see your passport.”

I took the sarong off my head. I reached inside my money belt and I handed my passport to the man. He swung his AK 47 in front of my face and he reached out to grab my passport, flipping through it, reading out names of countries I’ve been to and then he threw my passport back at me and turned and walked off the bus.

The bus driver, before sticking keys in the engine, he turned and he looked at me. “Are you OK?”

And I responded, “I’m fine.”

All of the people on the bus, they all seemed to be looking at me asking me with their eyes and their smiles, “Are you OK?”

And I responded, “I’m fine.”

The woman sitting in front of me, she was in full burka, black from head to toe. She smiled, her eyes peeking through her face, masked by the black. “It’s ok, my child, your Indonesian family is here to protect you.”

I reached inside my money belt and I took out a tiny turtle, one that was made out of seashell and coconut shell and I held it in my hand. I closed my fingers around it and I took a deep breath in… and I let it out…

I remembered what my adopted brother had told me. You see, I had been living on the island of Pulau Weh, just north of the city of Banda Aceh. I had been living in a home right next to my adopted little brother. He became my adopted little brother because his mother used to feed me on a daily basis. She invited me to their home for breakfast, lunch or dinner and the last night I was there, she cooked all of my favorite foods.

She made coconut soup, pumpkin curry and a special sticky rice dessert. And at the end of the meal, he took me out to the beach and he handed me that turtle. “Look down! What do you see?”

“A turtle?”

“Uh, uh. Family! A connection! If you ever need anything at all, just think of us. Hold that turtle in your hand and take a deep breath in and let it out.”

I held that turtle in my hand all night long as I packed, even as I walked the next day to the docks where I was taking the boat to Banda Aceh to catch the bus. I sat down in my seat and I thought to myself, “Saya mau sendirian. I wish to be alone.”

I managed to be alone for approximately 30 seconds before I felt this soft tapping sensation on my arm. I turned and I looked. It was this woman, she was in full burka, head to toe, in black. She held in her hand a dragon’s egg. Not a real dragon’s egg. It’s a type of fruit from Indonesia. The outside is a thick, hot pink leather and the inside, a delicious white fruit. “kau mau mau makan,” she said to me.

“No. Saya mau sendirian. I wish to be alone.”

“Kau mau mau makan. you wish to eat!” I realized that there was no arguing with her so I began to share her fruit. And before I knew it, we were talking. And then she looked at me. “You look exactly like my daughter.”

Huh! I was wearing khaki pants and a tie-dyed T-shirt. “How did I look like her daughter?”

“My daughter, she’s the first one in her family, in my family to go to Banda Aceh University. She is now an English teacher.” Before I knew it, we had actually reached the city of Banda Aceh.

We stepped off of the boat and I reached down to grab my bags and say goodbye. When I felt this hand on my arm, this grip on my wrist. “Come, I take you to the bus stop!”

“No, it’s okay. I can go by myself.”

“T, t, t, t, t, t, t, t, I take you!”

I followed her down this long maze of roads through the marketplace. We stopped in a sarong shop. She needed to buy something for her daughter. In the end, she just bought one item… for me. It was a beautiful sarong with flowers all over it and then she handed it to me. She told me, “It’s for your daughter.”

“I don’t have a daughter, Auntie!”

“You will; one day you will have a daughter! This sarong is blessed by the imam, the highest of holy men in the mosque. He does not care that your child is not Muslim. He blesses all children.”

I packed that sarong neatly in my backpack and I followed her out the marketplace to the big bus stop to the ticket shop where I bought my ticket. The woman, Auntie, she explained to the man selling the tickets that I was her daughter and it was his responsibility to sell me the correct bus ticket. He explained to me that for his sister, he would do anything. He also explained that the bus wasn’t leaving for another four hours and if I so desired, I could sit next to him and wait. I didn’t have an opportunity to respond.

Auntie, she grabbed my hand and said, “Come, you eat dinner with me!”

Huh?” I found myself being dragged onto a little bus. I found myself getting off the little bus in what seemed like the middle of nowhere and there appeared to be a group of houses to the right and jungle to the left. The houses didn’t even look like they were complete. Auntie, she explained to me that her husband’s job was security. He watched all of the houses and when they were finished, they would move to a new location where he would protect the rest of the unfinished houses in Banda Aceh.

I had to duck in order to enter her house.

I noticed that there were no pictures on the walls. Just one poster in Arabic. I asked her what it said and she smiled. “It is a phrase about family, that strangers should be family and always welcome in your home.”

I asked her where exactly all the photographs were. I was used to my mother’s house where there are photographs everywhere. She pointed underneath the bed. There was a box. I took the box out and I started looking through the photographs and I found one of her daughter at her daughter’s graduation.

I asked her how her daughter was doing today and she grinned. “My daughter is perfect. You keep that photo.”

“Why would I keep this photo, it’s yours?”

“T, t, t, t, t, t! You keep the photo. I have the memory.”

I put that photo in my money belt. Before I knew it was time to catch the small bus back to the big bus stop.

She waved down a small bus and she explained to the small bus driver that I was her daughter. He nodded his head and said for his niece he would do anything and he did. He, actually stopped his bus at the big bus stop, something I never seen before. He got off the bus explaining to all the passengers that they would have to wait as he escorted me to the big bus stop.

He explained to my bus driver that I was his niece and that he, my new bus driver, was to make certain I arrived in Medan safely. The big bus driver nodded his head and explained to me that for his grandchild, he would do anything. Just before the bus leaved, just before he stuck the keys in the engine, he turned and… me… looked at me. Without any words, he seemed to ask me, “Are you okay?”

And I responded, “I’m fine.”

About three years later, I was sitting on my grandparents’ bed in Florida – Tampa, Florida, to be exact, when a news flash came on the television. News flash –  tsunami hit Banda Aceh. I wrote down immediately the phone number at the bottom of the news flash.

I ran to the telephone and I began to call and call and call and call until, finally, I made it through. And when I did, the woman’s response was, “We have no idea if the island of Pulau Weh (that tiny island I lived on just north of Banda Aceh), if it even existed anymore.” And in terms of Auntie and Uncle, unless I had their address, there was no way that she could help me. I simply had to wait.

I couldn’t, wouldn’t be able to know what happened to Auntie. I didn’t have any way of communicating with her. No cell phone number, no nothing. But I did send an e-mail to my friends at Pulau Weh and I waited.

I finally received an email one month later. When the ground began to shake, the people in Pulau Weh ran up to the highest point on their island. Only one man died. He was trying to rescue his fishing boat. The rest survived. I went into my keepsake box and I found the turtle and the photograph. I put them together in my hands. I took a deep breath in… and I remembered and I had hope that Auntie was okay.

Too Crazy to Know Better

 

Story Summary:

 Jay O’Callahan shares storyteller Sandra Harris’s story of her involvement in the Civil Rights struggle in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Too-Crazy-to-Know-Better

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why do people get involved in the cause of justice?
  2. Who do you know who has taken a risk for justice?
  3. When has the government taken the side of injustice? Why would this happen and what actions have people taken to change the government’s position? What causes are people fighting for today?

Resources:

  •  Miracle in Birmingham, a Civil Rights Memoir – 1954-1965 by W. Edward Harris,
  • Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years 1954-1965, Public Television

Themes:

  •  African American/Black History
  • Civil Rights Movement
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

I’m Jay O’Callahan. I’m going to tell a story that Sandra Harris, a storyteller from Indianapolis, has given me permission to tell. It takes place in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963. I tell it in the voice of Sandra Harris.

I’m Sandra Harris. Nineteen sixty-three, I was living in Birmingham, Alabama. I had two children. I was pregnant. My husband, Ed, was away and I read in the newspaper Dr. Martin Luther King was, he was going to be speaking at the 16th Street Baptist Church downtown Birmingham. So, I got a babysitter and went down to the church. And I felt so welcome. Here I was pregnant, only white person in this whole church and I squeezed in. And it was so crowded, people were standing around the back and talkin’.

Dr. Martin Luther King, he stood…and there was presence. And I wrote down what he said at the end and I’m going to read that. He said, “I don’t need to tell anyone here tonight, what a long struggle this has been and it’s not nearly over. But brothers and sisters, let all who oppose us know this. We will stand in the face of poll taxes and we will cry ‘Freedom!’ We’ll stand in the face a job description, discrimination, and we’ll cry ‘Freedom!’” And by then everybody knew that every sentence was going to end with “we’ll cry Freedom!’”

He said, “We’ll stand in the face of hatred, we’ll cry ‘Freedom!’” On and on he went. “Because we’re children of a living God and citizens of this great country. And we will stand and cry ‘Freedom!’”

But by that time everyone is crying, “Freedom, freedom, freedom!” I’m not exaggerating. It seemed like the walls of that church were vibrating. And I knew this was not a movement. This was a revolution. And it was going to succeed, no matter what the cost. Course, I didn’t know the cost was going to be five years later, Dr. Martin Luther King was going to be murdered. I didn’t know just a few months later, there would be a bomb placed inside of that church, 16th Street Baptist Church, four girls are going to, were going to die. Those girls, I always carry, this. Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Cynthia (Carole) Robertson, that was the cost.

Well, I didn’t get involved in the march all the way from Selma to Montgomery. I didn’t face the hoses. But I did get a call just a few weeks after Dr. Martin Luther King was there, from a friend of mine, Jan Tomasack, from the Unitarian church, to go down to the superintendent’s office. You see, Dr. King had asked the students to come out and join the demonstrations. All of them were arrested. And the superintendent had expelled them. Some of these students were seniors and it was not fair. So, I went down, six white women, went into the office superintendent. I waddled in, eight months pregnant. And the superintendent was furious. We would, we would dare to challenge his, his decision. And he kept saying over and over, “I told those children, if they participated in demonstrations, they would be expelled and I’m true to my word!”

Well, he went on and on and on. There was no meeting place. And so finally I said, “Dr. Stow, Do the students read? Do they read the Declaration of Independence?”

“Course, they do.”

“Do they read the Bill of Rights and the Constitution? And do they read…”

“They read all of that stuff and we give them a test.”

And I said, “Well, that’s good and maybe they learned a little more than you expected them to learn.” Well, he was furious. He went on and on. We left.

My husband, Ed, and I, we joined something called Alabama Council of Human Relations. And this is blacks and whites talking about the future. We decided the thing to do was to go to one another’s homes, talk things over. So, we had a black couple, one Sunday, come, and after that the phone calls began, threatening us and our children. We’re staggered, we’re terrified. So, Ed and I decided to call my mother in Nashville, Tennessee, 200 miles away. I said, “Mother, Ed and I need to talk. Can you take the children for a few days?”

She said, “Fine.”

I was working so Ed took the children 200 miles. The moment he stepped into my mother’s house, the phone rang. He picked it up and a voice said, “You don’t deserve to live!” Oh, we were shocked. Nobody knew we were going to Nashville. Not even our best friends. We had heard about the phone being bugged. But now we knew. It was bugged. We didn’t know for sure, but it was it was said that there was a state committee that bugged the phones of people they didn’t like, like us. Now we’re worried about the life of our children. We knew what they could do. These people with violence.

We know because back in 1956, Ed and I were in college in Birmingham and Nat “King” Cole was in town. He was going to be singing at the Birmingham auditorium. And that was wonderful because most artists wouldn’t come because of segregation. In those days the blacks have to sit up, upstairs balcony, white folks downstairs. So my, so, Nat “King” Cole said, “I will come. Two concerts; one for whites, one for blacks.”

So Ed and I go to the white concert and Nat “King” Cole is singing. Then we heard this commotion and turned. Six men were running down the aisle and they were shouting, “Get him!’

Those men jumped up on the stage and they started beating Nat “King” Cole. Kicking him and knocking him down. Finally, band members got up and they pulled them off. Security members come. Nat “King” Cole was hurt, he was taken off stage. The band began to play “This Land of Liberty.” Then Nat “King” Cole came out on the stage and stood there…and he started singing. So, we left with all those memories of those songs but we left with the memory of that violence. That stupid meaningless violence. And now that violence was turned towards us and our children.

Well, Ed was accepted to graduate school in Boston. So, we left for the frozen north. At least our children safe.

Now, I like to tell that story because it reminds me of the courage of all those black people, all those white people who fought for freedom.

Miss No Name: Struggles for Justice

[youtuber  youtube=’https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b4YwSPffb9c’]

 

Story Summary:

 Jay shares storyteller Brother Blue’s (Dr. Hugh Morgan Hill) experience as an African American soldier in World War II in the Jim Crow South.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  Miss-No-Name-Struggles-for-Justice

Discussion Questions:

  1. Have you experienced injustice?
  2. Tell of a time someone helped you when you were treated unfairly.
  3. What are the injustices in American society today?

Resources:

  •  Sayin’ Somethin’ Stories from the National Association of Black Storytellers, Copyright 2006.
  • The Autobiography of Malcom X, Random House Publishing

Themes:

  • African American/Black History
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
  • War

Full Transcript:

Hi, I’m Jay O’Callahan. Ruth Hill has given me permission to tell this story written by her husband Brother Blue, who is also Dr. Hugh Morgan Hill. I’m going to read this story called “Miss No Name,” and this is about the time World War II, Brother Blue is an Army officer about to go overseas. And I’m going to read it to try to capture some of the, some of the cadence and the beauty of his words.

Miss No-Name, blue-eyed soul sister wrapped in snow. What’s your name? I’m Brother Blue, that’s my name. I’m a street cat. I like it like that. What’s your name? What’s your name inside? Your name? I got a story for you, a poem, a song, a dance, I do all over the world. I’m telling stories in the street to heal the broken world. To heal broken hearts, broken hands, broken bodies, all over the world. What’s your name, Miss No Name? I want to know your name inside. Your name.”

Once upon a time ago, long ago, a song ago, when I was a young man in the United States Army, I fell in love with you, Miss No Name. What’s your name? Long ago, a song ago, a blues ago, we got the news that we were going overseas. So, I went home, said hello to my folks, and I went back to my unit down South.

This was a sad time, bad time, this was time of segregation in the southern states of America the Beautiful. One morning, I woke up and thought, “What if I have to die, now? This is a beautiful day to die for America the Beautiful.” America the Beautiful did not think black soldiers could be brave warriors. I am, I always will be a black soldier. Early in the morning in the Southland, just before we’re to go overseas, I saw a wild bird. And I thought, “This is a day to die, to die for America the Beautiful. So, I bathed. I prayed. I put on my officer’s uniform and walked under the bus station, where it was against the law in the Southland for white people and black people to sit together on the bus. In those sad days, those bad days, black people had to sit in the back of the bus, white people in the front of the bus.

So, I walked to the bus station. The bus is waiting for me. I looked up at the sky; this is a lovely day to die for America the Beautiful. Bus is waiting for me. I looked up at the blue sky. I heard that voice, “This is a day to die.” So, I’ve got on the bus. Black people in the back only two seats empty, right behind the driver. “Whoo, haaa. They’re waiting for me. This is a lovely day to die, die.”

So, I sat down right behind the bus driver. The bus driver, he looked in the mirror. I saw his eyes were blue and they were burning in the mine, they were daggers. But he could see my eyes in the mirror and he saw something, the eyes of a crazy man, ready to die. Don’t want nobody to grab a crazy man who’s died to fear. So, I’m waiting for the military police, civilian police. And then, oooh, haaa, here comes a lady on the bus. A lady on the bus. She’s like music in the early morning. She got skin like snow, blue sky in her eye, golden fire in her hair and she sits down beside me. I don’t know why. Why does the sun, why does the sun shine in the morning? I don’t know why. Young man got up. He was sittin’ behind. A gallant son of the South, most courteous. He said to this lady sitting beside me, “You don’t have to sit beside this…” (I’m not going to say that word. I can’t say that word.)

And the sweet lady beside me, she said most sweetly, softly, softly, “No. This is perfectly all right.”

Well, my heart began to dance and shout but I couldn’t let it out. Something inside me was falling in love with this lady, this sweet lady. The bus is now making a sound. It’s moving, its coughin’, it’s lurching and crying and moaning and groaning. And we’re going through the South. And I’m waiting. I’m waiting. Military police. Civilian police. Ever stop, waiting, waiting.

Finally, the sweet lady, I don’t know her name, she got up and she got off the bus. She smiled at me without looking at me, for something inside both of us was past skin, past color. Past all. All names. I wanted to say, “Sweet lady, what’s your name?” I wanted to say, “Thank you, sweet lady. Thank you for seeing me, beyond color, beyond visible. You taught me something, sweet lady. You taught me, you can’t judge a person by the way they look. Up till the bright moment, I didn’t believe a person, white like snow, could make a move for a man of my color. I didn’t believe it could happen. But then you came along like a song. You opened my eyes so I could see past the skin we’re wrapped in.”

Oh, Miss No Name, I’m a wandering storyteller. I went to war overseas. I didn’t die. Many of my brothers did. Now I’m a wanderer, like a leaf in the wind, a fool for love. Traveling around this round, where you awaken me. You opened my eyes. I could see past the color we’re born in, past the accident of the birth, past the body we wear…past the given name.

Miss No Name, I know your name. Inside your name, it’s something like Love, something like Truth, something like Beauty, something like God. I can’t speak it, I’m trying to live it. I pray someday, before I fly from this world, as I travel through the streets, the subways, the prisons, the broken fields, broken city, I can make a move for somebody that don’t look like me. Like you did for Brother Blue, long, long ago.

 

Who Knows What Children Make of These Things?

[youtuber  youtube=’http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jFv1EzIzTxg’]

 

Story Summary:

 In three short anecdotes, the teller (Milbre as a child) and her small daughter, Elizabeth, try to make sense of a world in which we are taught to fear “the Other”.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  Who-Knows-What-Children-Make-of-These-Things

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Why did Milbre’s mother think that Milbre had put her friend, Debbie, in danger?
  2. Have you ever had to tell a younger child about the realities of racism and violence? How did you balance the concern for wanting to protect their innocence and the need to prepare them for some of the harsh realities of life?
  3.  What do you think of Elizabeth’s comment: “Even the bad guys and bullies can be painted on the mailbox”? Do you think this is just childish well wishing or is it possible to include everyone in our definition of family?

Resources:

  • Starting Small: Teaching Tolerance in Preschool and the Early Grades by Teaching Tolerance Project and Vivian Gussin Paley
  • Raising the Rainbow Generation: Teaching Your Children to Be Successful in a Multicultural Society by Dr. Darlene Hopson
  •  www.MulticulturalKidBlogs.com
  •  Milbre used these folktale collections to work on her longer show from which this video excerpt is a part:
  •  Peace Tales – World Folktales to Talk about by Margaret Read MacDonald
  • Tales from Afghanistan by Amina Shah
  • Arab Folktales translated and edited by Inea Bushnaq

Themes:

  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination

Full Transcript:

My name is Milbre Burch. These stories are from, In the Family Way and Making the Heart Whole Again: Stories For A Wounded World.

I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, born in 1953, but I left home and I married another southern expatriate in Providence, Rhode Island. Our children were born in California, in the 90s. And since then, we’ve lived in the southeast and the Midwest. Though we all grew up in America, my children and I were born into different worlds. In the 60s, the light brown woman who cleaned our house had a dark brown daughter about my age. And in the summer of 1963, I played with Debbie when she came to work with her mother. I was 10 and that meant that we could walk around the neighborhood on our own. And so, I suggested we walk up to the drugstore, lured by the soda fountain, and there I ordered two limeades. The counterman served us, as we stood and slurped down our drinks, put them on my family’s tab, and headed home. When I got there and my mother realized what I’d done, she scolded me, telling me that the counterman could have refused to serve Debbie because of the color of her skin. She said nothing more than that. Just that I had put Debbie and our friendship in a perilous position. Now, my mother had immigrated from Canada and grown up in southern California. And she remembered that the woman who lived across the street would let her play in the yard with her children. But wouldn’t let her in the house because she was from a foreign country. I didn’t hear that story until my mother was in her 90s. But even if you don’t talk about your past, still it shapes your life. And perhaps that’s why she never spoke to me of people as others. So, it was not until that day in 1963, because of white privilege, that I even heard of the Jim Crow laws. But Debbie and her family had to live with them every day. What did her mother tell her about how to navigate hostile world? And what children make of these things?

In 2002, my husband and I and our family lived in Chapel Hill. And I set out one Thanksgiving holiday, to take our girls by car to the hills of north Georgia for a Thanksgiving celebration with my brother. My husband, Berkeley, stayed behind, he was working on his dissertation and would join us in a few days. Now, whenever we went on a road trip we would always play songs and stories on tape in the car. And this day we were listening to, “I’m to let it shine,” a collection of songs from the freedom struggles and during the civil rights movement. It’s an acapella album and I defy you not to burst into song if you’re listening to it. So, we drove down the road, singing at the top of our lungs. And then we’d come to a line like, “If you miss me at the back of the bus, you can’t find me nowhere, come on up to the front of the bus, I’ll be sitting right there,” and my children said, “Mom, what’s that mean?”

Now my kids had friends of many colors and they were too young to have studied the civil rights movement in America yet. So, I told them for the first time what it was like growing up in the segregated South and they said, “Oh.” We played some more music and came to a line like, “You’re gonna go my bail.”

And they said, “Mom what’s that mean?” And I told them for the first time about how if you believe all laws unjust you might participate in a civil disobedience and you might get arrested. And your friends would collect money to bail you out so you could go back to your demonstration.

And they said, “Oh.” And we start singing again. Who knows what children make of these things?

A week later, we were back home at our own supper table. It was early December and now the sun set at 4:30 or 5. We were having dinner and I realized that Elizabeth, age 6, was going to a birthday party right after school the next day and we hadn’t gotten a present. So, I said, “Honey, let’s run over to the bookstore at the mall and pick up a gift card.” Because books are our favorite gift to give or to get.

She said, “OK, Mom.” And we did just that. Drove over to the mall, went to the bookstore, came out with our card. We’re headed back, in the parking lot, in the night sky, and I was aware of a stranger coming toward me. And I turned and I saw it was a woman and she was carrying a big, stuffed bear. So, I wasn’t afraid. It was another mom getting a gift for another child. And she asked me if I might take her to the bus stop by the university because she just missed her bus there at the mall.

When she spoke, it was clear that English was not her first language. She had a very heavy accent. Now, I’d never picked up a stranger with my child in tow. And Elizabeth doesn’t like surprises. So, I said, “Honey, we’re going to help this gal get to the bus by the university.”

She said, “OK, Mom,” and climbed in the backseat. And woman and the bear got in the front. And we drove up to Franklin Street and dropped her off. But I thought I should put this unusual happenstance into a context for my little girl and so I said, “Well, Honey, I just did my good deed for the day.”

And in the backseat Elizabeth thought for a minute said, “Why do you have to do a good deed for the day, Mom?”

Well, I said, “I guess I think it’s what makes the world go ’round.”

She thought for a minute and then she said, “Some people wouldn’t help another person with a different accent or a different skin color.”

And I said, “That’s right, Honey.”

And she said, “And that makes the world stop.”

I said, “I think you must be right.”

She thought for another minute. She said, “And then when the world starts again you have to keep jumping over that person every time you get to him.”

I said, “Yeah.”

And then she said, “And after a while it gets to be a great big pile because it’s all of us.”

I said, “Elizabeth you’re a philosopher.”

And she said, “What’s that, Mom?” And we drove up the driveway and we’re home.

Now, Elizabeth had started sharing her big ideas the year before when she was five. September 11th, 2001, my girls were both at the Montessori community school when my husband came in to tell me that a plane had just run into the World Trade Center. A few minutes later, he came back to tell me that a second plane had flown into the second tower. We were stunned by news of this attack. And we stayed close by each other all day long. We got an e-mail from the school saying that no one would talk about the incident until the parents had had a chance to speak to their children that night. But that the next day, the teachers would be prepared to answer any questions that children might have. Now, when my girls were young, I had Mommy Day with each one of them, one day a week. And that meant, when I went to school I’d only pick up, the one girl, leave the other at the child care center a little while longer, and go have a small adventure with one of my daughters. And that Tuesday, it was Elizabeth’s turn for a Mommy Day. But Berkeley and I didn’t want to leave each other’s sides, so I took him with me. And we went to the mall with Elizabeth to get some ice cream.

Now, Elizabeth doesn’t like surprises. She stood there for a moment and then she said, “I don’t know what Daddy’s doing here. What’s a Daddy doing on a Mommy Day?”

And I said, “Honey, something really bad and sad happened today. Some bad guys, some bullies, they hurt a lot of people. Daddy and I just wanted to stay close by each other.”

And she accepted that. When our ice cream was done, we went back to the school to pick up her sister. And Elizabeth ran into the child care center and said, “Katie, some bad guys and bullies, they really hurt a lot of people.” And I grabbed her hand and I pulled her out of the childcare center before the other children could hear any more. And on the way home we talked a little more specifically about what had happened that day. But who knows what children make of these things?

Fast forward to New Year’s Day, 2002. We had been invited by our friend, Louise Amotel-Kecil to her house for an open house. Now Louise was Japanese-Jewish so she was a multicultural experience all to herself. And she and her husband, Holmes, adopted a baby boy whose skin color was different from theirs. And this open house was a chance to introduce him to his community, over latkes and sushi. So, my family went and celebrated the new family. When it was time to go home, we got back in the car and we drove down the long driveway at their farm and before we turned onto the highway, we saw their mailbox. Now, their farm is called “Clapping Hands Farm” and the whole mailbox is covered with bright, colored imprints of hands, all different colors. Elizabeth saw it. And in the backseat, as we turned on the road, she said, “Idea, idea, idea!”

I said, “What’s your idea, Elizabeth?”

She said, “We could get a mailbox and paint it like all the peoples of the world. And then, we could paint our house like all the peoples of the world. And then, we could get clothes like all the peoples of the world. And that way, no harm will ever come to us.” And she thought for a minute and she said, “Even the bad guys and bullies can be on the mailboxes.”

“May it be so, Elizabeth. May it be so.”

Not By the Sword: How a Cantor and His Family Transformed a Klansman

 

Story Summary:

 In 1991 in Lincoln, Nebraska, a Jewish Cantor and his family were threatened and harassed by the Grand Dragon of the state Ku Klux Klan. Here is the remarkable story of how they dealt with the hatred and bigotry, and, in the process, redeemed a life. Based on the book, Not By the Sword: How a Cantor and His Family Transformed a Klansman, by Kathryn Watterson.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  Not-By-the-Sword-How-a-Cantor-and-His-Family-Transformed-a-Klansman

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is this a story about religious transformation or about how isolated people need caring relationships?
  2. What does this story say about the power of words and the means of spreading those words? How does anonymity protect the speaker? How do the cantor’s ‘public’ words spread his message?
  3. Would you have considered inviting the former KKK member to live in your home? How was the family able to open their door and their hearts to a man who had hurt so many?

Resource:

  •  Not By the Sword by Kathryn Waterson, Simon & Schuster, 1995; University of Nebraska Press, 2012.

Themes:

  •  Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Interfaith
  • Jewish Americans/Jews
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

My name is Pippa White. The story I have for you is a true story. It’s about an incident that happened in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1991. Actually, it’s a much truncated version of a wonderful book called Not By the Sword: How a Cantor and His Family Transformed a Klansman. That book was written by Kathryn Watterson. And I’m very grateful to Kathryn for letting me tell this story. Actually, there are two people in the story, Michael and Julie, who I know. So I’m grateful to them too. And I’m going to tell the story from Julie’s point of view. I am now going to become Julie.

We had encountered anti-Semitism before. My husband was a Jewish cantor, he had had other appointments in other synagogues in other cities. Anti-semitism was not something we were unfamiliar with but this was different and especially upsetting. We had just moved into a new home in Lincoln, Nebraska after two years of renting. And one afternoon, my husband answered the phone to hear this harsh, hate-filled voice saying, “You’re going to be sorry you ever moved into 5810 Randolph Street, Jew boy!” Two days later we received a package in the mail. On the outside it said, “The KKK is watching you.” Inside there were all these flyers, dozens of brochures and flyers, with ugly caricatures of Jews with hooked noses, African-Americans-race traitors, all of them being shot or hanged. And another message, “Your time is up and the Holo-hoax was nothing compared to what’s going to happen to you!” This was too much. We called the police.

The police came and said they were 98% sure it was the work of one Larry Trapp, the state leader and Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. Larry and his Klansmen had terrorized many Jews, blacks, and Vietnamese in Nebraska and Iowa. And said the police, “He’s dangerous. We know he has explosives.” Now they explained that he was in a wheelchair. He had lost both legs to diabetes but they said he had firebombed four or five African-American homes in Lincoln and the Indochinese Refugee Assistance Center in Omaha. And, unbeknownst to us, the police felt Larry Trapp was planning to bomb the very synagogue where my husband was the spiritual leader. Last thing the police said was, “So lock your doors and don’t open any more unlabeled packages.”

Well, we didn’t get any more packages nor did we get any more phone calls. But Larry Trapp had done his work very well. We had been terrorized. We couldn’t open the mailbox without wondering if there was a letter bomb in there. We worried about our three children and every time a car drove slowly by the house, we had a little panic attack. Larry Trapp had done his work very well. Perhaps because of this, I couldn’t get him out of my mind. But it wasn’t just the fear, I was also fascinated. I kept asking myself what makes someone like that? I found out his address and I used to drive by his apartment every afternoon after work and wonder, what makes someone like that? And how lonely he must be isolated in all that hatred?

Not long after this we found out that Larry Trapp was on television. He’d gotten himself on some local cable access channel and he would sit there spewing all these white supremacist hate. It made Michael so mad that he said, “He called us.  I’m calling him.”

So he called this, Vigilante Voices. All he got was an answering machine but he said, “Larry, why do you hate me? You don’t even know me. So how can you hate me?” Next day it was, “Larry, don’t you know that you’re going to have to answer to God someday for all this hatred?” The third day it was, “Larry, why do you love Hitler so much? Don’t you know that in Hitler’s Germany, one of the first laws the Nazis passed was against people like you, people with disabilities? Don’t you know that in Hitler’s Germany, you’d have been one of the first to go?” Every day Michael left a message. One day Michael said to me, “I wonder if he’ll ever pick up?”

I said, “If he does, offer to do something nice for him. You watch, it’ll throw him completely off guard.”

One day in the midst of this message, “Larry, when you can get rid of all the hate, there’s a world of love waiting for ya,” Larry Trapp picked up, “What #@&%* do you want?!”

“I just want to talk to you, Larry.”

“Why #@&%* are you harassing me? You’re harassing me! Stop harassing me!”

“I’m not harassing you, Larry. I just want to talk to you.”

“Are you black? You sound black.”

“No I’m, Jewish.”

“Well, what do you want? Make it quick!”

And then my husband took my advice, “Well, Larry, we know you’re in a wheelchair. We wondered if we could help you in any way? Take you to the grocery store, that kind of thing.”

Long pause. Michael says when Larry spoke again his voice was different. “That’s OK. That’s nice. That’s been covered. Thanks anyway. Don’t call this number again.”

“We’ll be in touch,” was the last thing Michael said. I think it must have been Larry Trapp’s time in life to be bombarded with love.

A nurse wrote him a letter, and because of his very poor health he was in and out of doctors’ offices all the time, and she said, “Larry, if you could embrace God the way you’ve embraced the KKK, He would heal you of all that hurt, anger, hatred, and bitterness in ways you won’t believe.”

And one day when Larry was leaving the eye doctor’s office, he felt his wheelchair being pushed from behind. He turned around and there was a beautiful young woman.  And she said, “I help you. I help you. In elevator.” A Vietnamese woman. And Larry and his followers had been brutal to the Vietnamese community in Lincoln Nebraska.

Michael kept leaving messages and one day, mid message again, Larry picked up. “I’m rethinking a few things.”

“Good,” said Michael, “Good.” Two days later, there he was on television, on the cable access channel, ranting and raving about…well, using every horrible, racial epithet you can think of. Made Michael so mad that he called and say, “You’re not rethinking anything and I want an explanation.”

“I’m sorry,” said Larry. “I’m sorry. I’ve, I’ve, ah, I’ve talked this way all my life. I can’t help it. I’ll, I’ll apologize.”

That night, at the synagogue, Michael asked the congregation to pray for someone who is sick with the illness of hatred and bigotry. “Pray that he can be healed.”

And across town, Lenore Letcher, an African-American woman who had been on the receiving end of Larry’s hatred, prayed, “Dear God, let him find you in his heart.”  And that night, the skin on Larry Trapp’s fingers burned and itched and stung so badly he had to take his Nazi rings off.

The next night, Michael and I were just sitting down to dinner when the phone rang. “I want out and I don’t know how.” Michael suggested we get together and break bread together. Larry hesitated and then he agreed.  We were rushing around, packing up the food, and I thought to myself, we should take him a gift. And I found a ring of Michael’s that he never wore.

It was a silver friendship ring. All the silver strands wound together. Michael said, “That’s a good choice. It’s always reminded me of all the different kinds of people in the world.” To me, it represented something twisted could become something beautiful. The last thing we did before we left the house was to call a neighbor and say if we’re not back in a reasonable amount of time call the police.

We got to Larry Trapp’s apartment knocked on the door, the door swung slowly open. There he sat. In his wheel chair, bearded. On the door handle on his side, hung an automatic weapon, behind him was a huge Nazi flag. Michael reached forward and touched Larry’s hand. He winced as though a jolt of electricity had gone through him. And then he began to cry. “Here!” he said. “Take these! take these! I don’t want ‘em anymore!”  And he put the Nazi rings in Michael’s.

We were speechless but not for long. I remembered my gift. I got down on my knees and slid the ring on his finger saying, “Here Larry, look, we brought you a ring.” He began to sob and sob, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry, for all the things I have done.”

We hugged him and pretty soon there were three people crying. We left Larry Trapp’s apartment four hours later, with the Nazi rings, the Nazi flag, all his KKK paraphernalia including the hood and the beret. And we left with all his guns.

Over the next few weeks, Larry Trapp’s transformation was so complete that the KKK began harassing him. He began to write personal letters of apology to many of the people that he had threatened. He joined the NAACP. He began to go to schools to talk to school children about tolerance. And he and my husband, Michael, were interviewed by Time magazine.

On the very last day of the year, Larry learned from his doctors that he had less than a year to live. We asked him if he wouldn’t like to move in with us. He agreed. Now this was not easy. We had three teenage children, a dog, a cat. I gave up my job to stay home and take care of Larry. But we all chipped in and, and made it work. As Larry grew weaker, he would listen to books on tape. He listened to books about Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Malcolm X, and he began to read and study Judaism.

And one day he surprised Michael and me when he announced that he wanted to convert to Judaism. We said we thought it was wonderful that he wanted to embrace a faith tradition at this time of his life. But if he wanted to embrace a faith tradition closer to his own roots we would understand that. “No. Judaism.” So in June of 1992, in a beautiful ceremony, Larry Trapp converted to Judaism in the very synagogue that a year earlier he had planned to blow up.

In September of 1992, Larry Trapp died in our home. Michael and I were with him, each holding a hand.  Before he got too weak, Larry was asked to speak at a celebration for Martin Luther King Jr. This is what he had to say, “I wasted the first 40 years of my life bringing harm to other people. But I believe that God sent Cantor Weisser to me to show me that I could receive love and I could also give love. I’ve learned now that we’re all the same. White, black, brown, there’s no difference. We’re all one race.”  Larry Trapp, the former Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan said there is only one race.

Loving Someone Tall: A Conversation With My Father About Race

 

Story Summary:

When Laura fell in love with Kevin, she was certain her liberal family would love him, too. After all, he was smart, handsome, educated and kind; that his skin was a different color didn’t matter, right? Imagine her surprise when Laura and her father needed to negotiate his discomfort with her sweetheart’s differences.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:

Discussion Questions:

  1. What do you think Laura’s Dad felt during their conversation? What do you think Laura’s Mom thought?
  2. Do you think things are any easier for bi-racial couples today?
  3. What do you think Laura should have done when her parents were upset about the German man she was dating? Do you think her dad had a point?
  4. How would you feel if your child married someone of a different race or religion?
  5. Do you think Laura should have told Kevin about the conversation?

Resources:

Themes:

  • African American/Black History
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

My name is Laura Packer.

I was born in 1967, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to a nice, liberal, middle-class, Jewish family. I was raised to believe that you judge people based on their actions not on the color of their skin. My mom, she always said that people are the same inside. So, when I brought home my elementary school best friend, Carla, she’s African-American, my parents treated her just like their own daughter. It was great. Everything was fine until I was an adolescent. And then, on top of all of the usual adolescent woes, I was dating. And then I brought home the German guy. For my parents, who were born during World War II, American Jews, this was really hard. After a while, they asked if I would stop dating him. And in my adolescent angst, I stomped my feet and I said, “No, he’s not like that.”

Honestly, I think we all were relieved when the relationship just kind of petered out. They didn’t have to keep biting their tongues and I didn’t have to feel defensive. I think, it’s really hard for parents. You raise your kid you, love them, you want the best for them, and you try and teach them everything that you know is right about the world. It can be kind of a problem when they actually listen to you.

When I was in my early thirties I started dating Kevin. Kevin is funny. He’s smart, he’s tall, he’s handsome, he’s well educated. He has a doctorate from MIT. He was everything I could want in a man. It didn’t matter to me that he was African-American. And it certainly wouldn’t matter to my parents. Right?

Well, maybe six or seven months into our relationship, I went home to visit my family. By now, it was clear that things with Kevin were really pretty serious. It was a good visit, although I could tell there was something in the air a day or two before I was supposed to leave.

My father said to me, “Laura, I’d like you to run some errands with me.” Now, in my family, that’s code. My father and I sometimes have a, kind of, difficult relationship and I’ll do something, inadvertently, offending him. He will have his feelings hurt and he needs to talk to me about it. He needs to let me know and describe everything in great detail until I apologize.

I thought, “Oh, great. What did I do now? Sure, Dad, let’s run some errands.”

So, we went out and we ran an obligatory errand or two. And then he pulled the car into the Denny’s parking lot and I braced myself. “Okay. Here it comes. I’m going to hear what I did wrong and I’ll apologize. We’ll get it over with. It’ll be fine. This happens every month or two.”

Instead, my dad was quiet. He just sat there looking out the window of the car. I glanced over at him. He wouldn’t look at me. Then he took a deep breath. Then he took a deep breath. “Laura,” he said, “your mother and I are concerned.”

“Concerned? What are you concerned about, Dad?”

He glanced over at me. I could see all this shame and love in his eyes. “Laura, we are concerned about Kevin.” How could they be concerned about Kevin? He was smart. He was a good man…Oh…I felt this churning in the pit of my stomach. I began to grind my teeth and I waited. “Yes,” My father said. “We’re concerned about Kevin.”

I looked at my dad. “Dad, why could you be concerned about?” I said. “Is that the Ph.D. from MIT? I mean, I know that’s a big educational gap between us but he respects my mind. Oh, oh, I know, is it, is it that it’s a doctorate in science not in medicine? I think science is pretty cool. Or maybe, maybe,” I said to my father. “Is it because he’s so tall?” I know that when we look up at him we do get kind of a crick in our neck.”

“Laura,” said my father his face turning red. “Laura, that’s not what I mean, and you know it. I’m concerned about the racial difference between the two of you.”

Ah…I have been foolish many, many times in my life, over and over again, I react when, maybe, I shouldn’t. I get angrier than I really need to be. And every once in a while, there is this moment of clarity. And I listen to it. I reached over and I took my father’s hand, “Dad,” I said. “I know that you were concerned that Kevin’s African-American and that I’m not. But I love him and he loves me. Honestly, Dad, I think that you should be proud. You should be proud that you raised a daughter who can love someone regardless of their education or their height or the color of their skin.”

He was quiet and then he glanced over at me and said, “He is awfully tall, isn’t he?

“Yeah, Dad he is. Honestly, I think he gives us all something to look up to.”

We went home. And honestly, I can’t say that being in a biracial relationship has not had an impact on my life. But every relationship has had an impact on my life. Kevin and I, eventually, got married and my father he loves Kevin. When we come and visit, my dad beams with pride as he introduces his handsome, smart, funny, kind, educated, tall, African-American son-in-law to his friends. And honestly, why shouldn’t he be him? After all, what parent doesn’t want their daughter to marry a doctor?

Taylor Made Family: An Aunts Tale of Transracial Adoption

 

Story Summary:

When Nancy’s sister adopts seven-year-old Taylor, aunt and niece find kindred spirits in each other. This story explores what makes us family and when the color of one’s skin does and doesn’t matter.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Taylor-Made-Family-An-Aunts-Tale-of

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Transracial adoption, while becoming more common, remains controversial. What issues can you imagine experiencing (or have you experienced) if you were adopted into a family that doesn’t look like you? How might it be different in an urban area vs. a rural area? How might it be different if the adoption is in infancy or as an older child? What are potential problems? What are potential benefits?
  2. How would you want your differences acknowledged and handled by your adoptive family? How could they support you, make you feel welcome, and find the balance of becoming part of the family while honoring the culture(s) of your birth? How can you imagine asking for what you need and want? What can you imagine a supportive, productive family meeting looking like?
  3. How would you want your friends/classmates to support you if you are (or were to be) part of a transracial, biracial or multiracial family? What are things they might say or do that would be helpful? What are things they might say or do that would be hurtful? How would you want them to ask you what you need/want in way that feel supportive? How could you bring it up to them?

Resources:

  •  In Their Own Voices, Transracial Adoptees Tell Their Stories by Rita J. Simon and Rhonda M. Roorda
  • Inside Transracial Adoption, by Gail Steinberg and Beth Hall

Themes:

  •  African American/Black History
  • Crossing Cultures
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Identity

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name’s Nancy Donoval and I want to tell you a story about the best present my sister ever got from me.

I was looking into her eyes and she was looking straight into my mine, clinging to them like I was her life raft. And if I looked away, she would drown. Splinters are painful at any age. I knew that personally. But when you’re 8 years old and one’s been festering in your foot for two days, it’s excruciating. And the fear of the pain getting worse when you take it out is even more so. It was Christmas and my sister said, “This is coming out.” And then she came up to me and said, “I can’t get her to let me take it out. Help me.”  And I went, and took Taylor, eight years old, sat her on the couch, and said, “Honey ,when I was your age I got so many splinters and it was so hard. And this is going to hurt but it’s going to be better after. When I was a kid, the only way they could get me to sit still to take the splinter out was, it took three people to do it. My dad would take the needle and he would do the digging. My mom would hold my hand and my brother, your uncle Jack, he would sing to me.

That’s what family does. And that’s what we’re going to do right now. We’ve got three people. Your mom’s going to get the needle. Roy’s going to hold your hand and I’m going to sing to you.” And I did what my brother had sung to me. “Hush, little baby, don’t say a word. Papa’s going to buy you a mocking bird.” Ah, she was so brave. And it took forever but the splinter came out. And in that moment of the echo from this memory of my childhood, I knew she was fully, completely my niece.

And I remembered that day my sister had called me the year before, (Taylor’s 15 now so, this is about eight years ago), my sister called me, the day Taylor moved in with her. They’d been having visits but this was the day Taylor moved in. And she said, “Oh my, I’m adopting you!” Well, my sister is nine years older than I am. She’s the oldest. I’m the youngest. She has a Masters in Business Administration. I have a Masters in Fine Arts. We are different people. And she had adopted me and she really had. Taylor and I are so much alike. It’s amazing to me. We both are theater nerds and she loves the arts. And all her emotions are right on the surface. And my sister is pretty much driven by logic, probably not as much as she thinks she is, but still pretty much driven by logic. And Taylor and I are both driven by emotion. And, oh, we just chatter away to each other. Sometimes I feel like her aunt and sometimes, because her mom was a little bit like a second mom to me, I kind of feel like we’re the two sisters goofing off in front of our mom.

Taylor said to me one day, “Aunt Nancy, I feel so lucky. I don’t think a lot of adopted kids end up in a family where there’s somebody who’s so much like them. Somebody who actually gets them.”

And I said, “Taylor, sweetie, I know for you that’s about being adopted, but I gotta tell ya, it’s pretty rare for somebody who was born into the family to have somebody who really gets them. Who really sees them. I’m just as lucky to have you.” I was really lucky to have her. My mom was always the one who really saw me, understood me, loved my storytelling, was emotional like I was. But my mom had Alzheimer’s and she was disappearing in tiny degrees. And life is so funny, the day I moved our mom, in an emergency move to a nursing home from assisted living, was the day Taylor’s adoption was final. As one who had gotten me came out of the family, one who got me – the one I got – who was like me, came in.

Now, of course, Taylor and I are not the same person and we’re different from each other. She has moved a little bit away from performing. She loves story like I do but she writes and writes and writes and writes. She told me that she feels like “writer” is the key to her identity and it has been the thing that has formed her since she was in sixth grade. She’s about to start sophomore year of high school. She has seven books she’s written. And she writes them and rewrites them in composition books. And then she types them and then she edits them. I would never have that. I tell stories out loud. I don’t write them down. Oh, we both love story.

She is taller than I am. She makes friends in grade school easier than I did. And we don’t really look alike. She’s tall and thin like the boys in our family are. The girls in our family are a little bit more, um, round. And also, we do not have the same skin color. I have to tell you, I make my sister, well…Let’s put it this way, my sister makes me look deeply tan. And Taylor is a rich, rich brown. And again, she makes friends so easily. She is in a grade school where there are kids of every color in the world. My grade school, oh sure, we had people who were German and Italian but the big difference between us and the rest of the world was we were Catholic. And there were other people who were public.  I didn’t really think about black and white. Probably because there weren’t really any black people in my family. And here’s Taylor. Not in my family, in my neighborhood, in my school, in my life, they just weren’t. And here’s Taylor, who’s in this school with all these different colors. And I’m seeing pictures with her with all her friends. And, oh, she’s dating this boy and she’s dating that boy. Well, I’m not quite sure what that means in sixth grade, but she’s dating this one and dating that one. And they’re white, they’re black, they’re Asian, their everything. And I asked her if she ever got any flack from the kids in school about, you know, being with somebody of a different race.

Because when I was in high school, I ended up having this guy I met at Junior Achievement camp and he was black. And we weren’t really dating, but we enjoyed each other. And he asked me to his homecoming dance and I was excited to go. I liked Cal. And his parents said, “No, you can’t go! You can’t go to the dance with her.” Because they were afraid for him that if he brought a white girl, now this was the 70s, but still if he brought a white girl, they thought he would be in danger.

And here’s Taylor with all these different people mixing around colors and I asked her if she ever got any flack. And she said, “Well, not like that.” She said, “But every now and then, people will be like, ‘No, no, no, no, you two don’t look good together. You would look better with him and she would look better with him,’ and that seems to be about what color people are.”

We have most of our really good talks in the car. I live in Minnesota now, she lives in Chicago, we talk on the phone, we do Facebook, we do messaging, we text. But our deep talks are in the car or at slumber parties at my friend’s house in Chicago. Taylor comes over and we have a big party. But in the car, somehow facing outward, we talk about hard stuff. And I told her once that I was thinking about doing a story about her because I tell stories. And I tell stories from my life and she’s so important to it. And I asked her what it was like to have been adopted into our family? And what it was like to be the one black person in a really white family?

I remember her first Christmas with us, just looking around the room, our a little clump of people, maybe only 8, 10 people in the room. And she just looked up and said, “All right, we need more black people in this family.” And, ah, she wasn’t wrong but it wasn’t like we could mail order someone for her. I was already dating someone, the other ones were already married, we didn’t have an opening. But most of the time, we don’t talk about race. But I asked her and we had, just had this big Christmas party at my cousins’. And my cousins, there’s thousands of them, and that seems like an exaggeration but when I’m in the room with them it feels true. My first cousins, four them, had 22 kids. There’s all these grandkids. I can’t keep track of them. They all live in the same neighborhood. They all go to the same school. They all know each other so well. I go to that party, I feel out of place and I’m related all of them. I’ve known them since I was a kid, since they were kids. But they have such a family dynamic. And I remember when Taylor was little and first going to those parties. She just ran around playing with all the other kids. But as she’s gotten older, she’s ended up being a little more separate. She doesn’t feel comfortable at the parties anymore. And I asked her about it and she said, “Well, I think as you get older, your heart gets smaller. I think you get more judgmental. Not everybody but some people do. And you see the differences more, nobody really says anything. But I just feel really different there all the time.” And I asked her if she felt that way with us and just our small family. She said, “No. No, not with you guys. But there I always know I’m different.”

And we talked about how much of that was her color being different, and how much of that was her being adopted, and how much of that was just simply the family dynamic of all these kids who go to school together and know each other really well and they don’t know her. But it turned out people do say things sometimes. She had one person at the party she really liked. She’s great with the kids, and she has one second cousin something or other removed, Claire, who she loves playing with and watches at the party. And they were going to play princess. And Claire said, “OK. I’m going to be the princess and you’ll be my servant.”

And Taylor said, “Ummm. I would like us both to be princesses.”

And Claire said, “Umm hmm, not how it works. I’m the princess because I’m white and you’re the servant because your black.” Claire didn’t mean anything by it. She was going from what she’d absorbed from TV, from movies; you look at the casting. She loves Taylor. But Taylor went in the bathroom and cried.

And then she came back out and said, “Claire, we are living in a castle with no servants at all. We are in a castle where the princesses take care of themselves.” But it’s harder for her to go to those parties because, though she still loves Claire, Claire was her safe zone, and her zone doesn’t feel safe anymore.

My sister tries so hard. It’s trans-racial adoption, how do I make her feel like she can fit in? Taylor told me my sister was asking her, “Do you want to celebrate Kwanzaa? We could celebrate Kwanzaa. I could look up how to do it.” And Taylor’s like, “None of my black friends in school celebrate Kwanzaa. No, I don’t care about celebrating Kwanzaa.”

You know, “Do you want to go to a traditionally black African-American school? Do you want to, we can go to all the museums?”

And Taylor’s like, “Thank you. I appreciate it.”  And she does appreciate it. But she’s like, “You know, mom doesn’t force it on me, which is great. It’s not like, ‘No, you must be African-American.’” Taylor said, “I don’t really think about color that much, unless somebody brings it up. I mean, I know, I know I’m black. But I don’t think about it. I don’t really see color very much. I just…I’m just me.” She’s so good at being just her and it’s how I am. I know I’m white but I don’t think about it very much. Except, I really worry that there’s going to come a time in her life, because she’s black, she is going to have to think about it. And I want to protect her from that. And I want a world where we really cannot be color blind because her color is beautiful. But where we can be like Taylor and I try to be. People who see the inside. People who just enjoy people and make friends easy.

I asked Taylor if she had any advice that she would give to someone who was going to be adopted into a family of a different race. And she said, “Hmm. I don’t know. I guess I would tell ‘em, keep an open mind because no matter what color they are, they’re gonna be your family.” And Taylor…Taylor has connected me to my family so much more deeply. She really is the best present my sister ever gave me.

When Summer Came: Summer Vacations in the Segregated South

 

Story Summary:

 During the 1950s, Gwen’s mother, like many African American parents, ritually sent their children down south for the summer. Gwen remembers the rich experiences with her grandparents on the farm but also many painful and dangerous racist encounters which greatly impacted her.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: When-Summer-Came-Summer-Vacations-in-the-Segregated-South

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why would African Americans send their children back down South in the summertime, after they had left behind the discrimination and mistreatment they often endured while living there?
  2. Have you ever experienced or seen others experience racism or discrimination of any kind?  Describe the experience and how you reacted or coped with it.
  3. What are some ways that people can become advocates or builders of acceptance of others who are discriminated against in our society?

Resources:

  •  The Gold Cadillac By Taylor, Mildred (Ages 10 And Up.)
  • Born Colored: Life Before Bloody Sunday By Erin Goseer Mitchell. (High School)
  •  The Rosa Parks Story – DVD (2002)

Themes:

  •  African American/Black History
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Identity
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination

Full Transcript:

My name is Gwen Hilary.

When summer came to Chicago, when I was a student in elementary school, I never got a chance to spend summers there. Each summer I was sent South to be with my grandparents and to spare… experience life on the farm. Now, during those years, when summer came, my mama worked from midnight until 8 o’clock in the morning. She would get home in time to see us off to school, and then get up again at 12 o’clock to fix lunch, and again at 3 o’clock to spend some quality time with us, from 3 until 7. That meant that she rarely got more than five consecutive hours during those working days.

So, when summer came, my mama got a chance to rest. She would prepare us a big shoebox full of food; chicken, bread, and cookies, and other things to take with us. But we didn’t know it was because she knew there would be no place along the route where we could purchase something to eat. I remember, one summer, when we were going South, that my sister and I had ridden the Greyhound bus for so many hours that we had to go to the bathroom, desperately. We bolted off the bus and rushed into a waiting room so we could get something to drink after going to the bathroom.

Now, we noticed that as we walked through, the men lowered their papers and some looked over the top of their glasses. When we got into the bathroom, the women stepped aside to let us go in, we thought that was quite nice. And then, we went to the bathroom, and we went to the stalls, and we washed our hands, and fixed the hair. Thought we looked kind of cute, as a matter of fact. And then, we walked through to where we could get something to eat and drink.

When we got to the counter, the waitress looked at us as we approached and said, “We don’t serve your kind here.”

Your kind? And we looked around and realized we had gone into the white only waiting room. We were so embarrassed and a bit afraid and we asked, “Where do we go to get something to drink?”

“The colored waiting room was around the back, over yonder.” And we walked out and saw an old dilapidated waiting room that said “Colored only.” And that’s where we purchased our beverage.

When summer came, we experienced racism in the South that we had never known. But there were wonderful days. You see, we went to school all year long. Black children in the South didn’t get out of school during the summer. Their school day ended or their school year ended, at the end of September maybe in October. It was then, that they would harvest the crops, pick cotton, and help the family raise money. My grandmama was a teacher in one of those schools down South. A one-room schoolhouse that housed students from grades 1 through 8. There were long benches and each grade was assigned a bench. And there was a potbellied stove that would keep the students warm in the winter. And over in the corner, was a table that held a bucket full of nice cold water and you could get a dip if you needed it. Now, there was also something else in that room.

There was a switch. Now that switch would make sure there was no disorder. But it also made sure that you attended to getting those lessons done. The worst time was when you were called to the front to spell those words that you had to learn each night. If you missed a word, you got a lick, smack, right in your hand. There were some mighty good spellers coming out of that school. When integration came, that one-room school was closed and all of the black children boarded yellow school buses each day, to ride to the brick, large schools in town.

When summer came, racism occurred in a way that I never knew existed in the South. I remember, that Emmett Till went down South with me. We were in the same school. Now, I don’t know if we were in the same homeroom, but we had classes such as art or music together. My name was Tarpley and his was Till. And as we sat in alphabetical order, he would have sat behind me in the seats that were bolted down. Six rows of eight seats, in each class room. I remember his eyes. Oh! Beautiful, beautiful brown, light brown eyes and a big smile. And he was jovial, always happy. Everyone liked him. But, you see, he had never gone South before and didn’t really understand what the South was like and the rules, that were very strict, for black child growing up in the South. His mama didn’t want him to go, but he begged because all of us were going. This was a ritual for many black families who had come North from the Great Migration to make a better living for themselves. They would send their children back to the farm, back to the family, to experience life. And so, Emmett Till went to Mississippi. I was in Arkansas that summer.

Now, while I was in Arkansas, my grandmother had sent me inside of the drugstore to purchase some items for her AND told us we could get some ice cream. Oh! It was so exciting! My sister went to purchase the items and I sat on a little, red stool, spinning around. And I said, “Black walnut, please.”

The young, white boy looked at me and he didn’t serve me. So, I spun around and I said it again, “Black walnut, please.”

Just then the door burst open and my grandmother rushed in and took both of us by the arm and she said, “She didn’t know any better. She didn’t know any better. We’re leaving, now.”

I couldn’t imagine why my dignified grandmother, who was a teacher, would give such respect to this white, teenage boy. She told me when we get outside, “Baby, baby, I should have told you. You can buy your ice cream in that store but you can’t sit down in there. You have to eat it outside.”

I remember we would go down to Mr. Tucker’s store on the corner. Mr. Tucker was a nice white man. But Mr. Tucker did not understand why we would not say “Sir” to him when he spoke to us. And I would say, “Mr. Tucker, I want a whining ball. Give me a red one.” Those were big, hard candies.

He said, “And?”

And I would say, “And, please?”

“And!” But I would never say “Sir” but he would always give me my whining balls.

When summer came, we had a chance to spend so much time with our eight cousins in our big frame house. We would make mud pies, roll car tires down the road. We could race each other and they’d look like big black donuts. We would grab the branches of the weeping willow trees, and swing out onto the water, and fall in with a splash. We would take lightning bugs, and put them on our ears, and we also would play with frogs. But when that lightning and thunder came, we children were told to sit absolutely still on the enclosed sunporch. My grandmamma said God was doing his work.

Well, those days are long gone, but will never be forgotten. The black community in the South was a special, nurturing place. It was a place where the wealthy and the poor, the highly educated and the illiterate, and those who were pillars of society and the derelicts, lived together in a community that nurtured and took care of each other. Now, the houses are gone. The barns have been torn down, and the land has been divided among the heirs. And we now rent that land out, and people raise soybeans and other crops on it. I’ll never ever forget those special days in the South when summer came.

Soul Food in a Southern Swamp: Bumming Fish and Crossing Boundaries

 

Story Summary:

 After fishermen in the Okefenokee Swamp give Elliott two fierce looking mudfish, he finds himself on a hilarious cross cultural journey learning how to cook the fish, and later meets a number of challenges learning how to tell the tale.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Soul-Food-in-a-Southern-Swamp-Bumming-Fish-and-Crossing-Boundaries

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Is “good ole boy” an ethnic slur?
  2. What does food and traditional cuisine mean to people in different cultures?
  3. What is soul food?  What is a favorite food from your ethnic background?

Resource:

  •  Everybody’s Fishin’- A Cross-Cultural Fishing Extravaganza   CD by Doug Elliott

Themes:

  •  African American/Black History
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name’s Doug Elliott and I’m a freelance naturalist and herbalist and storyteller and I’m interested in cultural diversity. I’m interested in how different people relate to the natural world and different cultures. But, you know, sometimes it’s a challenge to tell a story that celebrates cultural diversity without being culturally insensitive even though that’s not what I want to do.

Well, I want to tell you a kind of a fishing story. And, uh, and then, I’ll tell ya how I came to tell it the way I did.

Well, I was down in the Okefenokee Swamp. And I’m, I’m a kind of naturalist. I love to get out in the swamp and I’m always kind of sc… foraging and scavenging and trying to, and trying to keep my budget low. And, and, you know, I’m not always that good at fishing.

But, but, um, but I love to talk to the fishermen and, inadvertently, over the years, I’ve learned, uh, that I can often get a fish dinner if I just kind of lay a few hints out there, and just sort of say, say, “You know, if you get too many fish, let me know.” And a lot of times fishermen are glad to share a little of their catch with them, eh.

And so, one day, we were out there. We were, we were paddling out in the Okefenokee swamp. And it’s this mysterious watery wilderness, you know, swamps and cypress trees and water and wading birds. And a lot of people fish there; you know, we were paddling out. We’d paddled out all day and I was coming back. And I see these two, these two, two white guys sittin’ in a boat. And they’re, uh… they looked like they were local boys. And they looked like they knew what they were doin’. They were dropping their fishin’ lines in among the bonnet waterlilies there.

And I said, “You fellers catchin’ any fish?”

And they, “Wo, we gittin’ a few.

“Well, now, if you git too many now, lemme know.”

And these, one of these fellers says, “Well, we got these old mud fish. Now, you know, you don’t want dem, do ya?”

“Mud fish? Are they any good to eat?”

He said, “Well, a black folks eat them but we don’t.”

I thought to myself, “Soul food? You know, we’re talking about cornbread, collard greens, fish, chicken. I, I eat soul food all the time. I thought, “Well, yeah, I’ll, I’ll take those fish!”

And so, I pulled the canoe up there and let me tell you. He flopped these two fish in there. One… the biggest one was about a foot and a half long.

And, let me tell you, this was a beast to be reckoned with. It looked like the, it looked like the essence of swamp, congealed and personified, right there. I mean, this fish had a big fan shaped tail. It had, it had this, this, this shaped like a, like a wood splitting wedge. And it had, had thick armor-like scales and a huge mouth – big, wide mouth like a catfish ’cept this, uh, this mouth had just jaggly, snaggly teeth in it. Had these two little tentacles sticking out, from out of his nose. I mean, this was a creature to be reckoned with.

I said, “Oh, it is quite a fish here.” I said, I said, “You guys don’t know how to cook them?”

“No, black folks eat them but, but, but now we, we, we don’t, we don’t.” And then the guy out in the back of the boat says, “Well, actually, you know, Daddy had a recipe for mudfish.”

And the guy looked around, he says, “He did?”

“Yeah, yeah,” he said.

I said, “Can you tell me?”

He said, “Yeah, but it’s kind of complicated. C… You got a good memory?”

I said, “Here, I’ll write it down.” I reached in my, in my backpack there and I pulled out my sched… my, my notebook and I started, I started writin’.

And he said, “Well, now what ya do is you get ya a nice, soft pine board. And ya just cover it with barbecue sauce and ya lay a bunch of onion rings all over the top of it. Sprinkle it with some garlic and some herbs. And take that fish, you split that fish open. You lay ’im out there on the board, and you put some, put some more barbecue sauce on top of that. More onions, more garlic, pick some herbs. Oregano is really a good herb to put on there, and then, and then some… and a little mustard, a little ketchup. And you put ’im right there against the fire and then you just cook it. And, and you just let it cook ’im ’til he’s really crisp. Then you scrape that fish off and eat the board.”

“Oh, ha, you guys!”

They started laughing.

I said, “Ha, well, thank you, gentlemen. I appreciate that recipe. I’m a go hunt me a board. I’ll go see if I can cook these fish, you know.”

And I’m paddling off, down in a canoe, down there, kinda embarrassed, you know.

I hear them guys. They’re just still laughing. “Ha, ha, did ya see that? He’s writin’ it down, ah, ha, ha!”

So. So, finally, finally, I get down, I get down. and I’m thinking, “Well, man, I’ve got these fish. I want to cook these fish but th… I gotta figure, I gotta find someone who will know how to cook these fish. And I’m going into the dock there and there’s boats going in and out. And there’s people in the concession there selling tickets and things.

And I’m thinking, thinking, “Wha…who is going to know how to cook these fish? Who would tell me, you know?”

And then, all of a sudden, I look. An over on this little, this little spot of land there, there, she is, that wise woman we’ve all been wanting to talk to – a large African-American woman. She’s sittin’ there in a folding chair. She had her fish bucket on one side and her cooler on the other side. She had three fishing poles, I think. Oh, there she is, that wise woman! She has been way… been sitting there in solid, focused contemplation all day. Been contemplatin’ this vast, watery wilderness before her. Those fishing poles, like sensitive antennas, reaching down, probing the depths, bringing home food and sustenance for her family. Oh, she is that wise woman! She would know how to cook a f… a mudfish but can I get her to tell me?

Well, only thing I do is just go over and ask, you know. And she’s a fair distance away there, you know. I start walkin’ over and this… I just go over and talk to her and see what, see what she will tell me, you know.

I see her lookin’ over at me, ya know, kinda lookin’ like, I can almost hear her thinking, “Uh, what’s this white boy want with me?”

Ha…and, ha…and I just kept walkin’ over there and then I see her look back.

“Oh, Lord, he’s still coming.”

She’s adjustin’ her fishing poles, you know, adjustin’ her fish… I came up to her respectfully as I could and I said, “’Scuse me, ma’am. Can you tell me how to cook a mudfish?”

She looked up from under that broad-brimmed straw hat of hers, ah, ha, ha, kinda suspiciously, and she says, “How? Ha, ha, huh, huh, huh, huh, ah, huh! huh, huh, huh!”

I can just see her thinkin’, “This white boy wants a tell ya how to cook a, cook a mudfish.”

You just laugh. Let him tell ya, ya know.”

I said, “No, ma’am. Uh, these fellers gave me mud fish and I don’t know how to cook them. I thought you might tell me.”

And she warmed right up. She said, “Well, honey lamb, they aren’t hard to cook. Now you can’t scale ’em. You have to skin ’em like a catfish. And you take ’em, you put ‘em in a pot and you steam ’em for a while and that meat’ll come off the bones. You take yo fork and you take de meat off de bones. She said, “And then you take and git you some, git you some corn meal and some aig, a little bit a pepper, a little bit a onion. Ya chop ’em up. You make fish balls, fish patties outa ’em and you fry ’em.” She says, “They good!” She said, “They good as a mullet.”

And I thanked her so much. And, you know, we went back to camp. We did that, you know; we made these fish cakes. They were better than any sa… salmon croquettes, better than any crab, fancy crab cakes, I ever had. It was some of the best fish I ever had.

And I was so glad that I had just been brave enough to just go talk and… to this wise woman. And she gave me that good advice. And, you know, I got ta… and I’m thinkin’ about tellin’ this story. And I’m thinking about how some people, you know, these, these white guys, they were, they was, they really kinda thought that this food was, like, beneath them, you know. And of course, of course, that’s, uh, interesting because different cultures have different relationships on that.

And, um, we… later on, that same trip, you know, I was down on the, down on the coast. And I see these two guys fishin’ and they, they had the big, the big surf castin’ rods. Two young black guys. And, and I see ’em castin’ out there and, and these guys knew what they were doin’. Now,  I…well, I gotta go talk to the fishermen. So, I went over and talked to ’em and, ha, one a ’em catches a fish.

Oh! I love to be there when someone catches the fish. And he starts, he starts winding this fish in and in comes a big ole catfish, big ocean catfish. Big elegant, long, long fins and, and, uh, long whiskers. And he takes it, takes it off there. Just tosses it down there in the surf like… it, it starts swimmin’ back.

I said, “Don’t you want your catfish?”

He says, “No, we’re fishin’ for sea trout.”

And, uh, and then next he’ll catch another fish. “

“Yes, see that! That’s what we’re looking for.”

And he took that up, put it in his cooler. And he catches another one, another catfish.

“Ah, can I have your catfish?”

“Yeah.”

You know, and I took those catfish back and I was cooking them. And as we ate those catfish, I kept thinking what if someone asked those, asked those black guys, “You know, are those, those catfish any good ta eat?”

And he goin’ say, “Oh, them ole, white hippies, they eat ’em but they ain’t no good. Ha, ha”

So, okay, so, I’ve been trying to tell that story and I’m been trying to just figure out, figure out how to tell it in the most culturally sensitive way, you know. And I remember one time asking an African-American buddy of mine (he was, he was a storyteller) and asked him what… I was just trying the story out.

And I just said there’s these two guys sitting in a boat when I describe the first two guys. And later on, he said, he said, “Well, you know, you white folks seem to think of yourselves as normal, you know. And that anybody you describe, unless you describe them with an adjective, we just assume is normal, you know, and as white.” “And, uh, and,” he said, “You know, you know, that’s really, you know you just have, to have to think about that. You didn’t give those first guys accents.”

Well, you know, when I tell the story now I give ’em an accent because they were southern. They were southern, southern Georgia good ole boys.

And, and, and um, and, and, um. And so. So, I thought, “Well, how… you know, I don’t want to describe them just southern rural white guys sittin’ in a boat. Uh, you know, it just, it just doesn’t seem like a natural way to talk, you know.”

So, so, I was thinking, “I was just remembering talkin’ to one, one ole b… one ye…one ole fa… ole Georgia, Georgia guy and he was saying, ‘Well, you know, I bone ’n raised ‘round here.’ He says, ‘My granddaddy came down here with a mule and a ba… and a wagon. Law, he’s crackin’ a whip the whole way. You know, I’m jus’ a ole Georgia cracker.’ And lot of people from so… north Georgia, and south Georgia, and north Florida, they call themselves “crackers” because that’s how their… that’s with their ancestry.

And so, the next time I told the story, I said, “Well, there’s these two Georgia crackers; they’re sittin’ in their boats there, you know.”

And, and I always kind of check out the audience and, particularly, if I’m going to tell racially based stories. I want to just make sure I’m not offending anybody. I see. I see this, uh, this one, one black woman in the crowd and I sought her out later on.

And I said, I said, “Did anything, put… anything bothering you about that story? Is that all right?”

And she said, “We need to talk.”

And I said, “Oh, yeah?”

And she said, “Yeah. Yeah.” She said, you call those white guys “crackers.”

“Um, uh, uh.”

She, she said, “Well, you know when I realized it, in the north “crackers” kind of like a, like an, like a racial epithet used by blacks against whites.”

And she didn’t like me callin’, callin’ anyone by a racial epithet.

And, uh, I thought, “Well, uh.”

So, we talked about it a little bit and she said… I said, “What can I call ’em? I just don’t want to say white guys, and, you know.”

And she… I… She… well…

I said, “Well, how about good ole boys.”

She said, “Yeah, I think good old boys would work.

So, next time I told it, I told it, you know… “These two good ole boys sitting there, uh, and in the boat and, uh…”

And then some people say, “Well, good ole boys sort of, sort of implies that these are southerners, sort of a stereotype that applies to certain southerners that has kind of racist overtones.”

Now I don’t know if I agree with that but you know it’s one of those processes that we’re just trying to work on, you know. And so, so, um, so, so, you know, and, and, one of the, one of the things that kinda, kinda gets me sorta realizin’, realizin’ in the course of following this thing, how much privilege I have because I’m white.

And I realized, I realized, sp… especially the kind of livin’… the way I make my, make my livin’ and, you know, I’m always kinda sneakin’ around somewhere, you know. And I look for some fruit trees or, or going someplace I’m not exactly sure.

“Oh, sorry, Officer! I didn’t realize that the fruit orchard there was posted. I didn’t realize there’s no trespassing there. You know, I’m sorry, uh, you know, uh.”

And I realize I can get away with that. What if I was black or what if I was Hispanic and I was caught somewhere like that? It would be a whole different experience. And so, you know, and I realize even, even, like, like when my son, my teenaged son, he’s going, “I’m going to go out,” with one of his black buddies and goin’ out at night, you know.

I said, “Well, just be careful. It’s a whole ‘nother level of prejudice you’ve got to deal with.”

And, uh, and so, so, um, so I’ve been trying to work on this all the time and sometimes I’ll mess the story up.

And, and, uh, and, and, you know, it…but what I realize is that, is that, is that…one, one, one of my, one of my, my African-American coaches says to me, he says, “Look, the main things, man, is that you care.”

And, you know, that’s where everybody’s at. Just the main thing is that we care. So that’s what I’d like to leave you with. So, thanks.

Small City, Big City: Opportunities Grow with More Diversity

 

Story Summary:

 A new workplace is sometimes like the first day at a new school. Differences aren’t accepted quickly, and sometimes differences can make a person feel completely isolated if they aren’t welcomed.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Small-City-Big-City-Opportunities-Grow-with-More-Diversity

Discussion Questions:

  1. How could the new workplace environment been more welcoming to Shannon?
  2. What could Shannon have done to mesh better in the environment?
  3. Should workplaces be more diverse and reflect the surrounding community? Why?

Resources:

  • Makes Me Wanna Holler by Nathan McCall
  • Black Men Ski – Stew at TED –https://www.ted.com/playlists/250/talks_to_help_you_understand_r

Themes:

  • African American/Black History
  • Crossing Cultures
  • European Americans/Whites
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
  • Workplace

Full Transcript:

My name is Shannon Cason. I worked at a plumbin’ wholesale company in Flint, Michigan. Flint, Michigan is a predominately black city and ah, I was the only black man working in a region. I don’t even know how that happens. But I, I was working there. And many times I used that kind of opportunity to stand out and give a different perspective. And I remember we went out for a drink one day, and we were talkin’ about demanding customers and, and how, ah, warehouse issues and after that the conversation turned to like NASCAR, deer huntin’ and cabins up north. And I didn’t really have a breadth of knowledge about any of those conversations topics. I’m just a city kid from Detroit so I really didn’t really know about those topics. And I just, I love learning and listening to new things. So I just listened in. And after a time frame, I felt like I could chime in or somethin’. So, I say, “You know, I remember when my grandmother took me up north to Mackinac Island to the Lilac Festival.” And no one seemed to really care about that conversation. Everybody just ordered another drink. And it kind of just drifted off into, into space. So I felt like, you know, it’s an uncomfortable place to feel isolated at work and not have certain connections. And, ah, at the job, it kind of went the same way. I wasn’t connecting. Ah, my mistakes seem like they were magnified because where other people, we would take these long orders, very long orders, and you’d miss some things, you know, and the mistakes that I made, seemed like they were larger than life. You know, other people can kind of gloss over a mistake or just kind of like laugh about it or crack a joke because of familiarity or, or connection and I didn’t have that.

So, it got to the point where I was put on a 90-day probation. I never really hadn’t any bad reviews or anything like that. And, ah, I, I remember I moved with my new wife, closer to this job. So I didn’t tell her about the probation. And I was, I was nervous about it. So I started looking for new jobs. Then a new job came and it wasn’t my job. My wife had got a promotion and the promotion was in Chicago, Illinois. And I had to go in to my boss, who had put me on probation, and ask him for this transfer. And it was challenging to get the transfer. He said, ah, um,  that there was really no positions for me available in Chicago. And that if I was to move to Chicago, I would have to take a demotion from inside sales to counter sales. And I was looking for new jobs anyway, so I took the job in counter sales because it’s better to have a job than no job. And I moved to Chicago.

And I remember when I started up, it was totally different in Chicago. I went into the building and it was a really diverse situation. You had men, women, Latino, black, white, ah, seniors, younger people. Um, forklifts whizzing by, order pickers high up in the air, racks up to the ceiling, 15 trucks out front, just right in front of the building. And I remember my manager, he was a black man. He shook my hand, showed me to the counter, and said, “Do a good job.” And I did. And I was making good connections with the people in the warehouse, customers; cracking jokes with them, having fun and making good sales.

And after time on the counter, I remember my boss came back out to me, and we walked in front of the building. And we were talking right in front of that rows of trucks, and he was saying that he had he was skeptical about initially hiring me because of the bad report I had from my, my former boss. But he was happy to see the improvement in my, in my performance. And he was telling me that there was a position openin’ up for shippin’ manager and he wanted me to take that position. I had never had any experience with managing 15 union drivers. But he said he’d think I’d do a good job.

And I think I did. I went into the shippin’ management position. And as a shipping manager, that’s like one of the most important positions because you, you, you, everyone in the company knows you, all the sales people know you, all the top management knows you, every part that has to get to customers in all of Chicagoland comes through me. I mean, it’s a big deal. We shipped all the Kohler parts to the Trump Tower. So it’s really big deal.

And I remember, ah, one more challenge. So after the shippin’ position, I asked for another position. And they put me back into sales. And I worked in sales for six months. Then I got my own facility. So I have my own building, with my own shippin’ and trucks and everything. And, ah, and I would sit in my manager meetin’s, with my old boss who believed in me. And he would mentor me on leadership but we would also talk about the Bulls winnin’ a game or we would talk about, ah, places downtown that plays the best blues music. So those types of things where we have a relationship. And, ah, they had this corporate-wide meetin’… was in another state. All the, all the facility managers from all over the country were there: Las Vegas, San Francisco, Chicago, even Flint, Michigan. And I ran into my, my old boss, the guy who I didn’t connect with and, ah, we’d never really, he gave me a bad review, and put me on probation, and gave me a bad recommendation, and I ran into him. And I had my own facility at this time, ‘n mine was a lot bigger than he is, about three times the sales of his facility. And I remember, we talked and we talked about the challenges of running our own plumbing wholesale company and we were related, finally. And it was, it was a cool experience.

So, I just want to say, like if you, if, if it’s times when, when you’re in a com, uncomfortable situation sometimes you have to take the risk, to jump out into a more comfortable situation for your personality.

So, thank you.

Listening to My Neighborhood: A White Woman, Gentrification, and Belonging

 

Story Summary:

 A white woman moves into a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood with, initially, very little curiosity about the community that resides there. Her assumptions about what it means to belong are challenged.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  Listening-to-My-Neighborhood-A-White-Woman-Gentrification-and-Belonging

Discussion Questions:

  1.  What does the storyteller’s phrase “understanding begins in misunderstanding” mean?
  2. Have you ever been in a situation where you were the only person who looked like you?  What did you do and what happened?
  3. What supports were needed in Julie’s neighborhood so that the long-standing residents didn’t feel misplaced or overrun and the new residents understood how they were perceived? What might everyone do to build bridges and create community?

Resource:

Themes:

  •  Crossing Cultures
  • European American/Whites
  • Housing
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

My name is Julie Ganey. And this story I’m going to tell you is an excerpt from a longer solo show, I have called, “Love Thy Neighbor…Till It Hurts.”

My husband and I first moved to our current neighborhood, Rogers Park, about 15 years ago in 1999. Rogers Park is, literally, one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the world, in terms of culture, ethnicity, socioeconomic, gender, age, everything. So, we were looking for a condo we could afford near public transportation, and we just happened to find one in the north of Howard area which just happened to be in Rogers Park.

So, the first week that we moved in there, it was Halloween. And I was driving home from Evanston, where I’d been teaching six and seven-year-olds drama. And I was dressed like a duck. So, when coming into my new neighborhood from the back, and taking a shortcut, and on the sidewalks, there are kids and moms. Kids are in costumes, moms are pushing strollers. And as I turned from this one little street onto another, I hear or maybe feel something go, thump. I stop the car. I’m not sure what’s happened. Had I hit something or run over something? But it actually, it felt like something had hit the car. So, on the sidewalk across the street, a group of kids and moms are staring at me.

I opened the door and get out and I’m hit on the hip with a raw egg. And I say, Oooh, what’s going on?” dumbly. And another egg hits me, this time on my face. And this egg is running down my face, I say, “Look why are you doing this?” You know.

And this little boy, in some kind of costume, maybe a pirate costume, he yells, “Go on back to your own neighborhood!”

And I say, “No, no. This is my neighborhood. I live here.”

And another kid yells, “Yeah, you don’t belong here.”

And I say, “No, no. I do. I live here.”

And I’m standing there and I’m realizing I’m making the situation worse by not just getting in the car and driving away. But I don’t understand why nobody is telling these kids to stop. And then, this little girl in a princess costume, she, kind of, yells like, “What’s that costume? What are you supposed to be?”

And another egg hits the car. So, sometimes they hit the car, sometimes right at my feet. And I say, “Oh, I’m a duck.”

And pirate boy yells back, “You’re not a duck. That’s not a duck costume!”

And I say, “Oh, well, I’m a mallard. You know, I have a duck bill in my car.”

Somebody else, “Screw you, duck!”

And finally, I’ve had enough and I got back in the car and I drove away. And in the rearview mirror, everybody on the sidewalk was just staring at me.

And when I got home, I was upset. And my husband Brad, right away, he wants me to describe the kids. “Which way were they walking? What did the tall kid look like?”

And I keep saying, “No, no. I’m not hurt. You’re missing the point.”

But he didn’t listen. He and the local beat cops ended up questioning a bunch of random kids on the block for a couple hours.

So fast forward a year and a half. I’m now teaching a summer drama camp for 25 kids in the neighborhood at the local school, a block away from our condo. It’s hot, it is hard, (my learning curve is very steep), and I’m eight months pregnant. So, my co-teachers and I spent the first couple of weeks negotiating discipline, figuring out how to meet these kids where they were. But finally, around week four, everything started clicking. And it started seemed like we’re really going to get some kids onstage to do a show, you know. Every day, we would spend some free time outdoors after lunch. And the younger kids would play on the playground and the older kids would shoot hoops with some of the counselors on the small court next to the school. I would always plant myself on the stairs and listen to the older girls talk about the boys.

And this one day, I remember, Jessica was emptying Hot Tamales into my palm and I look across the playground and I see this group of adults, mostly men, about 10, gathered on the sidewalk next to the little kids, about maybe 25 yards away. Two of the men in the center of the group, dive at each other and start fighting, in this tight, snarling knot. And the folks are eggin’ them on. And before I can think anything, I’m up. I’m waddling across the grass and I’m yelling, “Hey, hey, stop it! You can’t do this here!” You know, and they’re paying no attention.

You know, all the kids are noticing. All of a sudden, they realize something exciting is about to happen. But I continue and I’m yelling, “Get away from here!”

And finally, one woman in the crowd notices me, and she yells, you know, “Mind your own business! This ain’t got nothing to do with you!”

And I say, “No, it does. I’m in charge of these kids. Move away from here!”

And meanwhile these men are fighting and it’s very violent. They’re banging against cars and they’re rolling on the sidewalk. There’s grunting. And I noticed that one of the men in the onlooking crowd is carrying a bat or a big stick.

And I yell, “Get away from here or I’m calling the police!” and I feel this wave of dizziness.

You know, maybe it’s adrenaline or a familiar deja vu of realizing myself to be ineffectual, in a situation that I’m making worse, probably. So, I start fumbling, 9-1-1 and the woman sees this. And she says, “I said, mind own business, fat butt!”

And then from right over my, my left shoulder, I hear Jessica yelling back, “She ain’t fat, she’s pregnant!”

And then I realize all the camp kids are, like, right next to me. And I start shooing them back inside. I’m just desperate to get them inside before something really horrible happens in front of them. But Deja, another one of my teenage girls, is reaching over me and she’s yelling, “Don’t you talk to Miss Julie that way!”

And other kids are joining in. “Yeah, she ain’t done nothing to you! Leave her alone!”

And then somebody in the crowd yells back, “Shut up, Deja!”

And all of a sudden, it feels really dangerous. The energy outside the fences changed. And I say, “Come on,” and I get everybody inside as fast as I can.

Once we’re back inside, you know, the kids are revved up. They’re excited. Some of the younger kids are re-enacting the fight on the stage. The older kids are talking about who knows who in the group of fighters. And who they’ve seen around the neighborhood before.

Deja takes my arm protectively, she says, “Are you all right, Miss Julie? You know, your face is all red. Don’t worry, my cousin knows that Gigi, I’ma gonna tell him to fix her.”

They’re all revved up but I am exhausted. You know, I, I’m not up for any kind of teaching moment with these kids, who know infinitely more about violence than I do. And then this boy, Anthony, one of the older kids that everybody looks up to, shuffles over and he sits down in a folding chair near me. And he says, “You can’t do that.” He’s kind of looking at his gym shoes. “You can’t do that. It’s stupid. People around here don’t want some white woman telling them what to do.”

And I, and I say, “But, but I would have told them to stop it if I was white or Chinese or Hispanic or whatever.”

And it kind of shakes his head and he says, “You just shouldn’t get in people’s face, like, you know a better way for everything.”

I felt myself flush a little bit because, yes, I did think I knew a better way. I didn’t want me or these kids living in the middle of violence. But these kids, some of whom might have thrown eggs at me a year and a half earlier, who knows, they saw what I didn’t. They saw this woman who had moved into a neighborhood, with very little understanding or curiosity about the community that lived there, or the social disruptions and gentrification taking place there. They felt ownership over the neighborhood. It was theirs to defend. You know, maybe they weren’t moving into the fancy new condos but they were growing up on the same blocks their parents had. And they knew about the boundaries that have to be worn away not just painted over.

I think, now, maybe you have to let a neighborhood teach you how to be a good neighbor there. Across all the chasms that divide us and there are chasms that divide us, skin color and money, where we’re from, and what we have, and what we don’t have. Understanding begins in misunderstanding. With one awkward step after another, stumbling forward and surrendering and listening and listening and listening. Until one day, you realize, you’re walking around a place that finally feels like home.

My Father’s Race Against Discrimination: Anti-Semitism in the 1930s Track and Field

 

Story Summary:

 Carol’s father is told he is not permitted to run on his college track team at the University of Pennsylvania. Two Jewish runners in the 1936 Berlin Olympics are not permitted to participate in the 400 relays. All three are Jewish and all three have the same coach.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: My-Fathers-Race-Against-Discrimination-Anti-Semitism-in-the-1930s-Track-and-Field

Discussion Questions:

  1. In the story, Jesse Owens spoke up and told the coach, “Coach, I’ve won my 3 gold medals, I’m tired. Let Marty and Sam run.”  The coach pointed a finger at him and said, “You’ll do as you’re told.”  Why do you think the coach wanted the Black men to run in the Olympics but not the Jewish athletes? By deciding not to let Marty and Sam run, of what do you think Coach Robertson was afraid or resisting?
  2. What could Stanley’s teammates have said or done to enable Stanley to race in all the track meets in which he was not allowed to run? Would you have been willing to stand up against discrimination even if it meant not running for the team?
  3. The ending quote in the story by William Lloyd Garrison was important to Stanley.  How do you think its importance related to the discrimination he encountered?
  4. Do you think what happened to Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller could ever happen again in today’s Olympics?

Resources:

Themes:

  •  Crossing Cultures
  • European American/Whites
  • Identity
  • Jewish Americans/Jews
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name is Carol Kaufman-Kerman. It was 1927 when my father was nicknamed Speedy. Speedy Stan. Now he got tagged Speedy for being the slowest runner at Camp Lenox. Camp Lenox is a boys’ camp in the Berkshire Mountains in Western Massachusetts. Oh, it could have been worse. He could have been nicknamed “Wizzy” or “Leaky.” He peed in his bed every night. I mean, he was five years old. And so, every morning his counselor would wash out his sheets, hang ’em out to dry on the front porch, then drag out that mattress for everybody to see in camp. My father was humiliated. He was humiliated; he wanted to keep this a secret. He just wanted his parents to come, take him back home to Brooklyn. I mean, gosh, eight weeks at summer camp for a five-year old. It’s like a sentence.

Now my dad didn’t know it at the time that he’d be feeling, later on in his life, these same icky feelings of feeling different. Back in the 1930s and the 1940s, anti-Semitism was on the rise, not just in Europe. It was also on the rise in America as well. Now this was 12 years after my father was nicknamed Speedy for being so slow. He actually had earned a spot on the track team of the University of Pennsylvania. But unlike the other player… unlike the other runners, he was relegated to the bench. He was never put in any meets at all and it wasn’t because he was slow. It was actually… he was very, very fast and everybody knew it. His coach knew it, his teammates knew it. He more than proved himself during practice. But it was because he was Jewish. Now his coach knew that he was fast but his coach didn’t want this Jewish boy to shine.

His coach was none other than Lawson Robertson. Now Lawson Robertson was the United States Olympic track coach. The one that took the track team to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. It was a very controversial Olympics. It was where Hitler had grandstanded his, his strong Aryan German athletes. And we had two runners, the American team had two Jewish runners on their track team. There was Marty Glickman and there was Sam Stoller and, uh, they were slated to run in the 400-relay. A day before the race, Coach Lawson Robertson and the other coaches, well, pulled all the kids in.

And he said, “Ah, there’s going to be a change. We have to pull out Marty and Sam; they can’t run in the 400. We, we ha… we’re doing this because we heard reports from the Germans. They said that they are practicing in secret and that they’re saving their top, top sprinters for this 400-race so we, we have to pull out Marty and Sam. I mean, the reasoning just… it didn’t make sense. I mean, Jesse Owens and Ra… Ralph Metcalfe were put in instead of Sam and Marty. And, granted, we all know that Jesse Owens, I mean, he ordered… already won at that point, the gold for the 100 and the gold for the 200 so he was fast. Nobody could be faster than that. But there was another reason he, he wanted to put in this other player from the team. But this runner clocked consistently slower times than Glickman and Stoller. So, the whole thing didn’t make sense.

Now Jesse Owens, at the meeting, he spoke up. He said, “Ah, come on, coaches. Let them run. They’ve been working at this for over a month. I mean, I’ve already gotten three golds. I’m tired. Let them have their chance.”

And the coach said to him, “You’ll do as you’re told.”

And so, Glickman and Stoller, they didn’t run. And, of course, the, uh, the Americans came in first. And, well, Glickman and Stoller, they knew why they weren’t running because they were Jews and they knew that Coach Robertson wanted to spare the fear or the embarrassment of having two Jewish boys up on the winning podium. Now if my father hadn’t told me about his experience at University of Pennsylvania, I may not even have known about Coach Robertson during the 1936 Olympics or maybe what I would have thought that it was just a one-shot deal and that he had redeemed himself afterwards.

But three years later, my father was on the team and he wasn’t allowed to one… run in one meet. It was the day of the Penn Relays, the big, big race and the coach’s star runner got injured. Coach looked at my father. He said, “All right, Kaufman, off the bench. You’re running today.”

My father, he knew what opportunity this was. He knew that this was a, a moment that he could prove himself. And I have to think that he was also running, not just for himself, but he was running for Glickman; he was running for Stoller. He was, he was running for all those Jewish athletes that had qualified for the 1936 Olympics but it had boycotted them. Now none of the students or the community knew who my father was. He was, he was a benchwarmer and they were baffled why the… they would even, eh, let him run. But there he was and he had his chance and he got set on the mark. And when that gun went off, my father shot out of there.

He was fast; he was a sprinter. He was really good. And he took off and he was in the lead and all he wanted to do is win that race. I mean, his fraternity brothers showed up to encourage him… and the ladies from the sorority. But he wasn’t thinkin ’about them; he wasn’t thinkin’ about the coach. He was just thinkin’ about winning. He was thinking about beating the best time and he was thinking about breaking racial barriers. And so, his biggest contender was another guy from an Ivy League school. And as they were coming into the finish line, they were neck and neck. And then at the finish line, against the Harvard resentment of Coach Robert Lawson (Lawson Robertson), my father won. And all the reporters from the Philadelphia papers, they came running up to him and they said, “Who are you? Where did you come from? What’s your name?”

And then they went over to coach Lawson Robertson and they said, “How come you never played this Kaufman kid before?”

And he looked at them. He stared at them and then he stammered out a bold-faced lie and he said, “Ah, he’s been sick.”

His excuses never got any better than the 1936 Olympics. But after that, my father, well, there were articles in the paper. I mean, the coach had to play him. There was too much pressure from the alumni, from the community. They wanted to see my father run. Now the coach never really did mentor him like the other players.

And my father said, “He never acknowledged me.”

I’d like to end this story with a quote. It’s a quote that my father had taken to memory and he used in his life when he was up against an obstacle or he wanted to encourage us kids. And he’s… he said, “Well, I want to tell you, it’s a, it’s a quote by an American abolitionist. His name is William Lloyd Garrison. And my dad would laugh and say, “That guy, he was really a stubborn guy like your old dad.”

My father’s right. He is stubborn. He’s stubborn and determined to take a nickname like Speedy given to him because he was so slow and to turn it around to be called Speedy because he was so fast. And he’s stubborn and determined and patient to wait for his opportunity to run against discrimination. The quote, “I am in earnest, I will not equivocate, I will not excuse, I will not retreat a single inch and I will be heard.”

Worn Out Blinders: A Soldiers Story After D-day in Normandy, France

 

Story Summary:

Talking about World War ll was hard for Carol’s father.  As a recipient of three Purple Hearts, he shares his story of anti-Semitism at boot camp, his sense of Jewish identity with a stranger in Paris and how he mentally stayed strong and survived the front lines by wearing “blinders.”

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Worn-Out-Blinders-A-Soldiers-Story-After-D-Day-in-Normandy-France

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Why do you think Carol’s father, and soldiers today may not want to talk about their experience during war?  Should we respect their silence or encourage them to talk?
  2. Carol’s father talked about wearing “blinders” to get through the hard times.  Have you ever had a time in your life when in order to move ahead, you had to “wear blinders?”
  3. The Red Cross volunteer handed out Mezuzahs and Crosses to the injured soldiers.  What comfort was she hoping to bring them from these objects?
  4. Carol’s father shares that his Sargent asked him to take off his helmet so he could see his horns.  Many commentators say that this myth of Jews having horns started with a mistranslation in the Bible.  Why do you think rumors and anti-Semitic myths are perpetuated today?
  5. St. Lo was flattened in one night and the writer Samuel Becker described it as “The Capital of the Ruins.”  Besides the physical city being destroyed, what other type of ruins exists from war?

  Resources:

 Themes:

  •  Crossing Cultures
  • European American/Whites
  • Identity
  • Interfaith
  • Jewish Americans/Jews
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • War

Full Transcript:

Hello, my name is Carol Kaufman-Kerman. My dad didn’t talk much about being in World War II growing up. I mean, when I was a child I actually thought it was because he was invincible. I just… I saw the scars but I wanted him to be my superhero, my superman. And I felt so protected behind his fortified walls. Now I think, he also enjoyed me adoring him, looking up to him, but at what price. He had this knobby, sunken scar on his left shoulder. He said that that’s where they had removed a lot of the shrapnel. But he told me that they couldn’t get it all until they would be still some left in his body forever and I thought well that’s a heck of a souvenir.

My whole life I remember my dad saying, “Talk to me in my good ear, my good ear, Carol.”

Well, sometime during the war, his first, second or third injury, he had lost the hearing in his ear. Now as far as his emotional scars, those were harder to see. He had gotten three purple medals for being injured three times and he kept these medals in a box, in a drawer, in a room that hardly anybody ever used. I asked him once, “Dad, did you ever encounter anti-Semitism during the war?”

“I don’t know. Not rea… yeah, there was this one time at Fort Benning, Georgia. My commanding sergeant said, ‘Jew boy, take off your helmet. I want to see your horns.’ But, you know, he was from Arkansas and he had never met a Jewish person. It wasn’t really his fault.”

And I said Dad, “What about sensing your Jewish identity, feeling it over in Europe. I mean you were fighting Hitler. He exterminated six million Jews.”

That’s when he told me about his bold escape going AWOL, absence without leave.”

“Wait, Dad. AWOL, isn’t that illegal? Why did you do that?”

He said, “Well, to tell you the truth, Carol, I had been released from a hospital in Paris. They were scheduling me to go back out onto the frontlines. I didn’t know if I’d ever live to see Paris. It was Rosh Hashana and the first place I went was Rothschild’s Synagogue. It was closed but the Shammas was there. The Shammas is the person that takes care of the synagogue and he let me in and you know it felt good. I was missing family and he was there for me.”

Well, many years later, after I’d been married, my father told my husband and I both, he said, “You know, I remember when I was in a bunker. There were shells and fire all around and my buddy was sitting next to me. We were just inches apart. And I looked back over at him and his head was blown off.”

I looked at my father. I mean he said it so nonchalantly. But you know he would have had to have been holding back details and emotions.

He said, “Carol, this is the way I survived World War II. I just had to put on my blinders and keep ’em on. There was a time my captain and I, we were lying next to each other on our bellies and I had the radio strapped on my back. It was my job to radio back to our artillery the captain’s orders of where to aim the fire. And I believed that as long as I had that radio strapped to my back that I would be okay. You had to think like that, Carol, or else you’d crack.”

Well, about two and a half, three years ago, my dad and I were talking and he said, “Carol, I remember when I was in a hospital in France. We were four men and five legs.”

And that image just seared into my mind and I realized how impenetrable his blinders had to have been. I mean it was easier for him to talk about the good times, like the time that he was on a hospital train. There was a Red Cross volunteer. She was a famous actress from England. She was Alfred Hitchcock’s first icy blonde. Her name was Madeleine Carroll. And she was beautiful. Now she had made a radical change in his… in her career. She actually had stopped acting after her sister was killed in the London Blitz. And she just wanted to help the wounded soldiers.

My father said that he had seen all her movies and that he was madly in love with her. So, can you imagine, she’s walking down the aisle. I mean my mom… my father must have thought it was an apparition. It was an angel from heaven or something. She had in one hand crosses and she had in the other hand mezuzahs. A mezuzah is a casing with a Jewish prayer inside. And she came walking down; she stopped where my father was. She took a mezuzah and gave it to him and then she kissed him on the forehead. Oh, my gosh! He must have thought he died and went to heaven. He told me, he said, “I needed family and she was there.”

Well, now my dad fights a different kind of battle. He has prostate cancer. He’s softer now, more gentle. His blinders don’t work anymore and he can’t protect his fortress. His fortress that had kept our family so safe with his belief that if we all stayed inside the fortress, nothing could penetrate and hurt us.

Well, those weren’t on anymore, the blinders or the fortress. and last November my husband and I went to Normandy. We went and we saw all the things that he had lived through.

We would call him every single day and we’d compare the sights we had seen with what he saw. And we said, “Dad, today we went to see the beaches of, of D-Day. We saw the bunkers, the German bunkers. And my husband even called him from the American Cemetery. “Dad, tomorrow we’re going to go to St. Lo, the place where you got injured the second time.”

Now St. Lo was taken over by the Germans and totally destroyed. In fact, the writer Samuel Becker describes it as “The Capital of the Ruins.” It was that decimated and devastated.

When we got to St. Lo, we went right to the information tourist office and we asked, “Are there any World War II memorials?”

She told us that they were all closed for the season. We told her all about my father and how he had been injured in St. Lo. And she said, “Come back at five o’clock. I’m going to take you there myself.”

And so, we did. We came back at five and she introduced us to this small, little, French elderly man. His name was Mr. Letribot. And he introduced himself and said, “I am the curator of the World War II memorial. I would like to take you there myself.”

It was beautiful. It was in a 12th century chapel, La Chapelle de la Madeleine. He told us that it was the first time in his life he had ever had a piece of gum, given to him by an American soldier. It was the first time he ever had an Americ… eh, had a cigarette too. Also given to him by a soldier. And we told him about my father. He told us about the 29th. We had learned a little bit about how the 29th American Military Division had come in and they had liberated St. Lo during that July of 1944. And we told them how my father was in the 28th and they came in afterwards to relieve them. He smiled. He said, “It was your father’s division that had liberated my sister’s village not far from here. What your father did for us.”

And it made me think, “Did my… was my father ever thanked by anybody or soldiers ever thanked?”

And I looked over at my husband and there he was dialing my father in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. He said, “Stanley, we’re here in a World War II memorial and there’s someone that would like to talk to you.”

Monsieur Letribot got on the phone and he said, “Thank you so much for what you did for me and for my people. You came all the way over from America and you didn’t even know me. Thank you.”

And my father, oh, my father said, “You’re welcome. It was my pleasure. I did what I thought was right. Nobody has ever thanked me before.”

68 years later this conversation took place, 68 years after my father left France. Inside of a chapel whose walls are adorned with the military… American military flags with American medals with the… with the pictures of photographs of American fallen soldiers. And here was a liberated Frenchman saying, “Thank you” to a Jewish American soldier. And my father, well, he wore no blinders to protect his feelings… and he cried.

A Window of Beauty: A Story of Courage from the Holocaust

 

Story Summary:

 Nancy tells an excerpt from “A Window of Beauty,” a story inspired by the experiences of a young girl, her remarkable teacher and their secret art classes in the Terezin Concentration Camp in Czechoslovakia during World War II. It is a tale of courage, friendship and the power of artistic expression to sustain hope and light the way during the darkest of times.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: A-Window-of-Beauty-A-Story-of-Courage-from-the-Holocaust

Discussion Questions:

  1.  The story of Friedl and Rutie tells of the deep relationship between teacher and student. One child described the experience of being in Friedl’s secret art classes in the concentration camp at Terezin: “Friedl. We called her Friedl.  Everything was forgotten for a couple of hours. We forgot all the troubles we had.” What was Friedl’s legacy as a teacher? What memorable teacher in your own life was a rescuer or a life changer for you?
  2. How does a human being survive a tragedy such as the Holocaust?
  3. In what way is artistic expression – the creation of poetry, art or music and so forth – a form of resistance against oppression? How does it compare to the uprising of the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto during WWII?

Resources:

  • I Never Saw Another Butterfly: Children’s Drawings and Poems from Terezin Concentration Camp, 1942-1944, 2nd edition, 1993.
  • Fireflies in the Dark: The Story of Friedl Dicker Brandeis and the Children of Terezin by Susan Goldman Rubin,
  • Art, Music and Education as Strategies for Survival: Theresienstadt 1941 – 1945 edited by Anne. D. Dutlinger

Themes:

  •  Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Jewish Americans/Jews
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
  • War

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name is Nancy Shapiro-Pikelny. When I was 11 years old, I received this book as a gift. It’s a collection of poetry and art that was done in the concentration camp Terezin. It was created in defiance of Nazi brutality. The name of the book, I Never Saw Another Butterfly. It was created by children, secretly and courageously. Now in that book there was only a brief mention of a drawing teacher, nothing more. And for years, I wondered who was this brave teacher and who were her students? I recently discovered a story of one student, a girl whose nickname was a Zuti, little rabbit. A name that was lovingly given to her by her friends because of her enormous buck teeth. Her real name was Rutie Shaffner. The Nazi sent Rutie Shaffner to the concentration camp in Terezin.  And she was put in building L-410, room 28, along with many other girls her age. And there, the children suffered from disease and starvation. But Rutie’s life was lifted up out of the horror of the Holocaust through art, because of her teacher an artist. A woman named Friedl Dicker Brandeis.  I want to tell you a story, an excerpt from a story that I call, “A Window Of Beauty,” that I created by gathering remnants of history and also by imagining the missing pieces. Imagining all of the lost threads, in the winter of 1944, in the concentration camp in Terezin, Czechoslovakia.

One day Rutie Shaffner decided to go on a hunt to find any art materials that her teacher Friedl could possibly use in their secret art classes. She began her hunt at the first light of dawn. She went into an alley and found a box and she grabbed it away from a rat that was chewing on the corner of it. And in that alley, there was charcoal and string and wire. She filled the box and then she headed out from the alley when she saw, in the distance, a group of Nazi soldiers crossing the street, coming in her direction. She didn’t know what to do, so she slipped into the doorway of a building. She crouched down low. Her heart was pounding. What if they see me? What if they find me here? Well, the building seemed empty and so Rutie dared to go inside. And in that building, Rutie made a wonderful discovery – paper. Paper! Stacks of ledger paper, office paper that had been left in that abandoned building. Rutie filled the box. And when the soldiers had gone, she ran all the way to her building L-410, room 28, up those three flights of stairs and she brought that box of treasures to Friedl. And from the odds and ends in that box, Friedl was able to teach those children the art of collage making. Rutie cut the shapes, and she tore them, pasted it on that ledger paper, and when she had finished, Rutie had created the sunrise in Terezin.

Well, the snows of winter eventually melted. And in the spring the Nazis needed to make a plan – how to fool the International Red Cross. You see, the Red Cross was coming to Terezin in the summer for an inspection. And so, the Nazis needed to make that concentration camp look beautiful for one day – the day of the inspection. And so, the Nazis ordered the Jews to paint the fronts of buildings, to clean up the garbage in the alleys, to build a playground. A playground that would be used for that one day only. The day of the inspection. And the last part of the Nazi plan, so that the Red Cross would not see the overcrowded conditions and Terezin, the Nazis increased the number of transports to the east to the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

It was on a Thursday that they posted the next list. And among the 2,000 Jews on that list was Rutie Shaffner, little Zuti, little rabbit. She was only 13 years old. Now nobody, none of the people on the list, knew what it meant to be sent on a transport to the east. And so, they hurried to find anything that they could take with them on the train. A spoon, a tin cup, or a prayer book, a ragged blanket. And there was tremendous commotion and fear as the Nazis called out names and numbers and pushed the Jews into the cattle cars. And there stood little Rutie in that crowd. And she remembered her friends up in room 28. How they had loved her and protected her for the last few years.

She was trembling when she heard Friedl calling her name. And she looked up and saw that Friedl was making her way through the crowd. Friedl came up to her and said, “O,h Rutie, I came to say goodbye and I’m glad I found you. And I want you to take this with you on the train. One of the last drawings you did as my student. Look what a wonderful artist you have become, Rutie.” And when she heard that her face broke wide open into a huge smile those buck teeth in full view.

“No, Friedl, I want you to have the drawing. You keep it.” And Friedl did. Friedl and the girls of room 28 never saw Rutie Shaffner again. She was taken to the gas chambers of Auschwitz where she died on May 18th, 1944.

Now in September of that year, Friedl asked a friend of hers to help her fill suitcases with the many drawings collages and paintings from the children that she had saved for the past two years. They filled those suitcases, carried them up to the attic above room 28, and hid them there. In the following month on October 6th, 1944 the Nazis sent Friedl and hundreds and hundreds of children, and women, and men on cattle cars bound for the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Their lives ended there but their story did not. Because when the war was over, those suitcases filled with all their artwork… they were discovered, and taken to the Jewish museum in Prague and eventually published some of that artwork was published in this book. Now in the latest edition of this book, there appears Rutie’s sunrise collage. In Hebrew, we say zekher tzadik livrakha, may their memories be for a blessing. And I hope that we can make their lives a blessing by telling these stories about real people who had names and faces and a love for beauty and creativity. People like Friedl and Rutie.

Angels Watching Over Me: Transforming Years at St. Sabina School

 

Story Summary:

 During the Civil Rights Movement, Patricia’s family moved to the Auburn Gresham community on the south side of Chicago. Hers was one of the first African- American families to integrate the parish school. Over time, Patricia witnessed white friends quietly moving out of the neighborhood as they transferred to new schools. Before long, Patricia understands the meaning of “white-flight” and its effects. Fortunately, because of a few good angels, she was not severely hurt by the negative behavior surrounding her.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Angels-Watching-Over-Me-Transforming-Years-at-St-Sabina-School

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are the social and emotional effects caused by the decision of whites to abruptly leave a school rather than to figure out how to make integration work?
  2. In what respect has integration failed and why is there still so much negative reaction to this practice?
  3. Time alone has not taken care of the race problem; what steps are needed to begin the healing process?
  4. Who are the people in your life, outside of family, who have been brave enough to stand up for what is right? What have they done to demonstrate their courage?

Resources:

  •  Remember: The Journey to School Integration by Toni Morrison
  • Through My Eyes by Ruby Bridges
  • Dear America: With the Might of Angels by Andrea Davis Pinkney
  • Both Sides Now: The Story of School Desegregation’s Graduates by Amy Stuart Wells

Themes:

  •  African American/Black History
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Housing/Neighboroods
  • Identity
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name is Patricia Redd. And in a storytelling world, I’m also known as Serenity and I’ll be sharing a personal story about my experiences at St. Sabina.

I went to Catholic schools all my life. First grade through college from 1959 to 1976. But I have to tell you the most dramatically, transforming time for me was when I went to St. Sabina in my fifth through eighth grade years. I remember that 1964, my parents moved us from Englewood, which was a Southside community with people that look like me, to a predominately white neighborhood in Auburn Gresham. I had never seen so many white people in one place at one time. And when we went to the school, my mom was just comforting to me. And I knew in my heart that everything was going to be all right.

My parents went to so many community meetings back then. I was just a young’n but I remember that they would talk about how, as African-Americans, we just wanted to be able to go and live and be at peace. We just wanted to be able to go places and do things without folk telling us to go back to Africa. And we wanted to be able to walk around in the neighborhood without people shouting at us to get out of our neighborhood. It was our neighborhood. We lived there too.

There were three transforming, life changing events, that happened to me during that time. The first happened when I was in fifth grade. And we had just moved into the Auburn Gresham community. And had been at St Sabina, probably starting in September, and now it was May. September had the pract, ah, ah, St. Sabina had the practice of having a statue of Blessed Virgin Mary travel around from one person’s home to the next. And apparently, somebody had the bright idea that we should have a turn that this. That didn’t go over too well for some folk because there must have been a great deal of ruckus happening. But I tell you what, between my mom and the powers that be, we did have the statue of the Blessed Mother in our home along with all of the regalia.

The second transforming event changed my life forever though. On January 1st, 1965 at nine o’clock in the am, we got a phone call from St. Bernard Hospital that my mother had died. What? Oh my! My parents had just gone to a New Year’s Eve party the night before. And to my knowledge she hadn’t been sick. And then we get the word that she died of a cerebral hemorrhage. I had a hole in my heart too big to bear. What was I going to do? Here I was in a new school, in a new neighborhood, with people that didn’t really seem to want to have us around. But you know what? My mom must’ve really been looking after me though. Because in my sixth grade year, I had a teacher named Sister Kent that was not like any other teacher I ever had. Now I had been with nuns since the first grade, so that wasn’t it. There was something about her where she had a heart for me and I had a heart for her. She kind of looked after me. She watched out for my every move.

Well, on this day it started out like any ordinary day except I ended up with a splinter in my finger. Sister Kent rushed me over to the convent, and I’ve been wanting to go in this place forever, but now here I was, in it for the very first time. She sat me down at this long, yellowish looking table and disappeared. I waited with bated breath. Where, where was she? Well, when she came back, she came back with a bowl of water, a needle and some matches. All to take that splinter out of my finger. When she put my finger in the water to soak it she said something that changed me again. She said, “I can’t believe how white my skin is against yours.” I didn’t feel like she said that to hurt me. It wasn’t like some of the things that I heard my classmates saying or their parents saying whoever made of the mantra, “Sticks and stones may break your bones but words would never hurt you.” They didn’t know what they were talking about because some of the stuff that came out of their mouths was really ugly. But I didn’t get that sense from sister Kent. She loved me. That’s what I felt.

Well, in my seventh and eighth grade years, it seemed like every time I would come into the classroom, there was a desk vacant. There was a student sitting there the day before but now they were gone. And this happened repeatedly throughout, throughout those two years until eventually, St Sabina was no longer predominantly a white Catholic school. It had become a predominantly black Catholic school. And I realized that they were leaving just because of people like me. The color of my skin scared them. I thank God for my teachers but especially Sister Kent because through those years, I believe that they did everything they could to shield me from the ugliness of racism. But more than that, I believe that they picked up where my mother left off. They were the angels watching over me.

Special Blends: A Youthful Perspective on Multi-Cultural, Multi-Ethnic Heritage

 

Story Summary:

 Amber, Misty, and Autumn – three multi-ethnic sisters – offer a sneak peek into their thoughts about self-identification. These storytellers also share a medley of emotional experiences about how they have sometimes been viewed by others. From skin color to hair texture, from humor to poignant reflection, these dynamic young women personify Dr. Maria P. P. Root’s, Bill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  Special-Blends-A-Youthful-Perspective-On-Multi-Cultural-Multi-Ethic-Heritage

Discussion Questions:

  1. Should agencies require people of mixed heritage to check one box for their “race”? Why or why not?
  2. Does not choosing just one race imply that a person of multi-ethnic heritage is somehow denying any one part of his or her heritage? Explain.
  3. What are some challenges that may arise for multi-ethnic siblings?
  4. Some believe that since the number of people of mixed heritage has increased, that being “mixed” is no longer a “big thing”. Do you agree?

Resources:

Themes:

  •  African American/Black History
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Identity
  • Jewish Americans/Jews
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

Hi! My name is Amber Saskill and these are my sisters.

This is Misty (Hi!) and this is Autumn Joy (Hi!) and we are affectionately called the Sass Lasses and we’re a multi-ethnic background. So our story today is called “Special Blends.” It’s a youthful perspective of multi-cultural, multi-ethnic heritage.

Now we’re a blend of Jewish, African-American and Native American heritage. And the interesting thing about our three blends is that at one point in time, they were all persecuted or oppressed. For example, there was the Jewish Holocaust. There was the captivity enslavement and enslavement of our African ancestors and then, too, our Native American people. They were massacred and their land was taken away from them. But the interesting thing about people who have been enslaved, persecuted and oppressed is that they become stronger, more resilient people and we’re products of that. And even though, personally, I’ve been able to relate always to my different… my different cultures, piece by piece, it was interesting how by watching two films that really helped me to see the plight of mixed people in other areas of the world.

For instance, in South Africa there was a film during apartheid. And apartheid was racial segregation that took place from 1948 to 1994 and that’s during my lifetime. It wasn’t my mom’s generation or my grandmother’s generation; that happened in my lifetime. And to know that people of mixture were persecuted and oppressed because of the way they looked, that really touched me. And in this one film in South Africa, it talked about a girl who looked mixed and she associated herself with that even though that her parents looked visibly white. And even though she associated herself as being mixed, she was outcast from society and disowned by her very own family. And that really touched me on a deep personal level! And, in addition to that, I watched a film that took place in Australia. And it was the true life story of… in the mid 1900’s how the Aborigines and Australians, how they mixed together and had children that, later on, were actually discriminately called half caste. And these half caste were corralled and put into re-education camps where they were tried to be bred out of existence by being sort of diluted so that there was never any evidence that they ever existed before. And that’s called, actually, “the stolen generation.” And to think about these people that were actually sought after because they were mixed, that touched me so deeply!

That is so scary! In an attempt to eliminate a visual reminder of such a union, you know. And on a different level, that’s kind of what happened to my mom and me. We were getting ready to perform for this great storytelling festival. And before we could even get started, the festival coordinators, they slapped this big old sensor bar right across two of our stories. My mom was going to perform a story; it was a really funny fiasco of what happened when she and my dad first got married. (OK, I love that story!) And I was going to perform a story called “My Two Grandmas,” which is really close to my heart. And it’s a story where I bring to life memories of my Grandmama Rose and her Afro-Choctaw background and my Gram Blossom with her Russian-Ukrainian-Polish-Moroccan-Jewish background. And it’s one that tells of how they are from two different worlds but at the end of the story, you see that they’re really dynamic women. And they taught us, their granddaughters, to be dynamic women ourselves. But they did ask us remove the story and those two stories. And so we did; we’re professionals. But we did write a formal letter of complaint and we received a written apology back. But at the end of the day when the sun had set, we had been asked to compromise. And that’s pretty much my life. I’m mixed. I am asked to compromise.

And, really, as surprising as it may seem, as mixed people, we have to compromise all the time. It actually makes me think of something that happened to me not too long ago. A couple of years ago, I went to the DMV to apply for my learner’s permit and I filled out all the paperwork and I turned it in. And the woman behind the desk curtly informed me that I had forgotten to choose a race. And I politely told her that there was no box that says multi-racial so there was no box that I thought was appropriate for me to check. And she impatiently told me that I should just pick one of my races. And it’s funny this… this question comes up so often as… as people with mixed heritages. The infamous question, “What are you?” ((Right!)

And my first inclination is to say, “Well, I’m a human. I’m a woman. I’m a teenager. I’m a musician. I’m a student. I’m a sister, a daughter and a friend.”

Now I know if I ever really responded like that, their response would probably be, “No, really! What are you?” But, really, this is a really difficult question to answer because what I am or rather who I am involves so much more. Who I am is not… cannot be defined by checking black or white or any other box. Who I am is a complex amalgamation of my cultural influences, my experiences, my family, my friends, my beliefs and my interests. Some of these things change all the time. So for me to choose one of those boxes would be not only labeling myself but forcing me to identify with only one of my ethnicities. And that’s something I refuse to do because I identify with all my ethnicities. (And really it’s so true! Why would you forsake mother or father?) (Exactly!)

Yeah, and on a different note, in any typical family, siblings might look different and have different likes and dislikes. And I think in our family, we’re the same way. My sisters and I, we have differences; we have similarities. And I think that my two sisters, actually, they kind of favor each other a little more and I feel like I look a little bit different. So I think that our experiences as mixed children are different as well, especially my experience. I think, depending on where I go, I’m described as different ways. Like in some cultures, I’m described as the red-toned one. In other cultures or countries I’ve been to, they describe me as la morena or the darker one. But still in other cultures or societies I go to, I’m described as the light-skinned one. So there you go! I’m red, I’m dark, I’m light but still depending on where I’m at, my experiences are different than those of my sister… my sisters. And too, I really feel that because I look a little different than them, I would shudder to think that if that caste system, that racial segregation still existed to this day, what would happen with us? Would we be segregated from one another?

That’s something to think about. You know and if we’re not being judged by our skin or eye color, then we’re being judged by our hair. (Yeah!) And as you can plainly see, we’re curly girls and we’re very proud of it. And what do they say? “You don’t talk politics, you don’t talk religion and you don’t talk hair texture. (Right?) And titles like good hair versus bad hair is just unfair. We believe that all hair types and textures are beautiful and to be celebrated. In fact, a singer India Arie… she sings a song.

Oh yeah! Is that the one that goes something like this? “I am not my hair. I am not this skin. I am the soul that lives within.”

(Very true words.) Yeah! I couldn’t agree more. And a friend of mine got married to a man of another race and so they had a bi-racial daughter. And she inspired me to write this kind of lighthearted book geared towards tween… tween girls. You don’t even have to be mixed, just have curly hair to appreciate it. And this is an excerpt from that book,

I got into a fight one day, a rough and tumble with my hair.

I hadn’t combed it in two weeks so all would stop and stare.

My comb jumped in and tried to help but the fight just wasn’t fair.

It wrestled, it teased, it lost some teeth, got lost up in that hair.

The more I pried, the more I cried, the bigger it would grow.

I could not deny, from each side, it had turned into a fro.

And then I passed the mirror and I sucked my lip back in.

An idea began to gather and I grabbed some bobby pins.

My hands twirled and tucked those curls and, much to my surprise,

They calmly let me shift them, shape them into a design.

No longer were they rebellious. No nothing of the kind.

It was I who needed to see; it was I who had been blind

To the great beauty these curls so majestically possess.

Yes, with African-Cherokee-Choctaw-Iroquois-Jewish, I’ve been blessed.

So from that day forward, I pledged a pledge that with our hair or eyes or skin,

Never again would I define my heritage to fit in

With other girls

Who have no curls.

No, I’ll never feel chagrined.

They say the eyes, color aside, are the window to the soul.

So, too, this hair, curled everywhere, is gorgeous, free and bold!

(Woo! Love that bold) (Me, too!)

Well, I’m sure that my sisters agree with me that although as people with mixed heritages, we face so many difficulties but the positives definitely outweigh the negatives. We’ve been called names like Oreos, mutts. We’ve been even called mulatto, which is actually a Spanish term for a mixture between a donkey and a horse. So we’ve been called many names but thanks to our parents Rick and Sadarri Saskill and our grandparents, we truly have been able to see that each of us are a deliciously concocted, “special blend!”

 

Unsung Hero: How My Uncle Was Saved from the KKK

 

Story Summary:

 Sadarri retells a story of heroism that her mother, Rose, remembered as a child. The story takes place in Holly Springs, Mississippi in the late 1920’s when Sadarri’s Uncle Carl was set to be lynched for “speaking out of turn”. This story is about the unlikely hero who saved the life of Carl Esko Lucas who was truly a Black man dead and resurrected from the dust.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Unsung-Hero-How-My-Uncle-Was-Saved-from-the-KKK

Discussion Questions:

  1.  What effects did the jailing of Carl and the actions of the KKK have on his family?
  2. Why is the story called Unsung Hero?
  3. Was the deputy the only hero in the story? Explain. What does being a true hero mean to you?

Resources:

  • They Called Themselves the KKK by Susan Campbell Bartoletti
  • Getting Away with Murder: The True Story of the Emmett Till Case, (By Chris Crowe)
  • Simeon’s Story: An Eyewitness Account of the Kidnapping of Emmett Till
  • (By Simeon Wright and Herb Boyd)
  • Online Resource: http://www.myhero.com/go/home.asp

Themes:

  •  African American/Black History
  • European American/Whites
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

My name is Sadarri Saskill. It’s about 1992 and my mother, she went back to her hometown of Palm Springs, Mississippi to visit. And she hadn’t been there, ah, very recently and so she was taking pictures all around. And finally, my mom and my dad ended up downtown. And my dad took a picture of my mom in front of this plaque. And on this plaque were the names of war heroes that were engraved right there.

And so they came back to, to Naples, Florida where we lived, and they showed us the pictures. And when we got to that particular picture, it was crystal clear. And I remember, my mom and I, we read the names that were on the list. Then, all of a sudden, I noticed that my mother had a look in her eye and it was a look that I couldn’t quite put a bead on. I didn’t know what it was about but I knew that there was a, one last name that was on that plaque that ended up sparking a story. And it was a story about my mother’s brother, Carl.

My uncle Carl who was almost lynched by the KKK, by the mob, by the Klan, okay. I had never heard this story before. And when I did I was horrified. I, kind of, bristled up and everything. But then when I turned and I looked at my mother, her expression was somehow softer. So I got to thinking, well, maybe it was a long time ago or maybe she was kind of numb because of all the emotion and everything. But then she told the story, I figured that couldn’t be it because she was telling you so vividly, you know. She talked about the, the white mass against the dark sky and, and she talked about remembering the smells and the sounds that were in the air. It was something else that was going on.

Well, as she told the story, she told that, my uncle, he had been accused of talking to a white girl. And sometimes in some places in Mississippi, that was punishable by death. And here he was, he spoke to a white girl the wrong way. And so people decided that they were going to be able to take action. Now what happened was that same day they put my uncle in jail. And here he was in the jail and there was a deputy that was going to watch over him.

But in the meantime, the mob was so upset, that they wanted to make an example out of my uncle. That what they did was, they decided that they were gonna storm the jailhouse. But they did not know who they were reckoning with! Mm hmm! Because when they got there, my Grandfather Bill, he had gotten together a black posse of his own. And he was going to stand toe to toe with the Klan. Now that’s not something that happened in the 20s and 30s in Mississippi. It didn’t happen that way. But he stood there face to face with this formidable group of people.

Well, it seemed like all was lost. And the numbers were just not even, so that the number of blacks that were there. I remember that I started thinking about them with my mother and what she was telling me the story.  And I thought these men, that were black going against these men, who were white. At the time, that was something else because they were going to put their lives in jeopardy. They were going to put their families lives in jeopardy. And I remember telling my mother that these men were real heroes. And they were, because you mess with the Klan, mm hmm, and not live to tell about it. You didn’t do that because the Klan, they meant business.

So here they were face to face. And the mob, they could see that they were outnumbered. So the people in the mob they decided that what they were going to do was, they were going to go back and they were going to regroup. And they were gonna come back with more men before dawn because the next day, that’s when the trial was going to happen. This so-called fair trial was supposed to happen that next morning. And so when all of this happened, each group, the black group and the white group, they went in their separate directions in order to regroup. Whatever the outcome is gonna to be, we knew from this story that was being told to the family, that was going to be a whole lot of bloodshed before the sun came up.

Anyway, at dawn my grandfather, he came with all of the men that he had. But guess what? The mob had beaten them to the punch. They were already there at the jail house. And then, my mama, she, kind of, had a little smirk on the side of her face. And she told me that the mob and the deputy were fit to be tied. And you know why? Because my uncle, Carl Esko Lucas, had escaped like Houdini. They said that Carl, he was gone like a turkey through the corn. That’s the way my mother put it. That he had escaped!

So you can imagine the relief, the relief that my mother’s family felt. They feel so happy that he was safe. But they were a close family and they knew that Carl would always manage to be able to get a little message or something to them. But there was none. There was nothing. They waited a little bit longer. And there still was no message. So they got the wondering and they started thinking that wait a minute. And then rumors started trickling in. You know how rumors are. And the rumor had it that maybe, maybe Carl had  not actually escaped. Maybe the mob had actually killed Carl and dumped his body someplace because it was plenty of rivers and ravines in and back woods that they could hide a body, you know. And the reason for that would be that my mother’s family, the Lucas’s, they were a good  family. They were an outstanding family. They were a respected family. They never did anything wrong to anybody, in fact, they always lend a helping hand. Didn’t make any difference if it was black, if it was white. They were going to help out. And so maybe the mob got to thinking that they could kill him, have their vengeance, you know.  But they can appease the townspeople at the same time. And it would be a win-win situation.

Well, you know, time went on and what we ended up finding was, as the time passed, the angrier my mother’s family got. Weeks went by, months went by, years went by. In fact, my grandmother, Miss Etta, she died. And then about 10 years later, look who came like somebody resurrected from the dust, walking up the road. Nobody else then Carl Esko Lucas. And when my mother told me that part of the story, I said, “What? Who? He did what?” And she said, “Yep.  He came walking up the road with enough information to set the story straight.”

And so Carl told the truth. He told what exactly had happened that night long ago. Long ago when those two groups of men, the white group and the black group, when they separated and they were there alone in the cell. It was the deputy that ended up helping my uncle escape. He gave ‘im some food, he gave ‘im a little money, he gave the names of, of white folks that could help him on his, on his trip up north. But the two men, they had to make a solemn promise. They couldn’t tell a soul so that nobody’s family would get killed. And my mom said that her brother told her, my uncle, that they sealed it with a hug and they never saw each other again. And it wasn’t until that deputy and the members of that angry mob, until after they had either died or they moved on, that my brother, my mother’s brother, Carl, felt that it was safe to be able to return. And so they could recognize that it was because of love of family that he left and it was love of family that brought him back.

Now you remember that plaque? Mm hmm. The one that my mother showed the picture of? It was that last name that was the same as that deputy’s name. It was that name that was right there that triggered all these memories. And I remember, my mother, she told me that there’s good and there’s bad in every race. And my mother told me, she says, some people are recognized for the good deeds that they do and their names are put on, maybe, a plaque just like this. But there are other people that step up to the plate and they become heroes without anybody ever knowing about it at all. And that’s when I recognize that, that look that was in my mother’s eye. It wasn’t the look of horror. It wasn’t a look of disgust. It wasn’t a look of hate. It was a look of gratitude. Gratitude for a man who was bold enough to do the right thing.

A Crack in the Wall: Moving Beyond Racial Conditioning

 

Story Summary:

 In A Crack in the Wall a white man has an experience at a copy shop that causes him to examine the negative impact racial conditioning has had on him. He is disturbed when he realizes that he has been indifferent to the historical suffering of African Americans, and he becomes painfully aware of his subconscious denial and patronizing attitude towards them.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: A-Crack-in-the-Wall-Moving-Beyond-Racial-Conditioning

Discussion Questions:

  1.  How is it possible for a white person to be unaware of systemic unjust treatment of African Americans?
  2. Discuss how racial conditioning can cause white Americans to deny the systemic injustice that for African Americans is all too real.
  3. Why is being treated in a patronizing way so devastating?
  4. What are the rewards of connecting cross-racially?

Resources:

  • Savage Inequalities, Death at an Early Age and The Shame of a Nation by Jonathan Kozol
  • Honky by Dalton Conley
  • True Colors – ABC Prime Time Live 1994
  •  Longing: Stories of Racial Healing by Phyllis and Gene Unterschuetz

Themes:

  •  African American/Black History
  • Civil Rights Movement
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name is Gene. I’m going to tell a story called A Crack in the Wall. It’s adapted from the book “Longing: Stories of Racial Healing.”

In 1993, a friend invited me to a Race Unity workshop. Uh, and I really didn’t wanna go. I was really nervous about it, because I knew my life was going to change. Or I, I thought my life would change because I had never really delved into the whole issue of race. But I went anyhow. Uh, and I got snagged right from the beginning, because I was learning about institutional racism, and something I had been totally ignorant about. But I was learning how in every institution, African-Americans and other people of color, have been disadvantaged, uh, by the racism that permeates the institutions of the country. Uh, what I was learning is that, that whites – white people, white citizens wield power in virtually all of these institutions. And, so, we were given the definition. Racial prejudice plus power equals racism, and so the… it was a really compelling equation. But it led to the deduction that if you’re white in America, you’re racist. And I had a bit of a reaction to that.

I was thinkin’, “Well, I don’t really have any power. You know, I don’t feel superior. I’m just a cog in the, uh, corporate machinery.”

So, but as I listened to more of the lectures, aaa… I, I learned about the inequalities, yea… oh… abou… as far as, uh, disadvantages that people of color have in this country because of inter… and the institutional racism. I had been ignorant of all this stuff.

I grew up in the 50s. As a child, I was old enough to have been aware of the race riots, and the protests, and all the civil rights stuff that was goin’ on at the time. But when, when I saw the, the videos that they were showing in the workshop, the imagery of the, of, uh, people getting’ blasted with water hoses, uh, children and adults getting’ attacked by snarling dogs. These weren’t just blurry images.

I didn’t have any memory of them at all, and I’m thinking, “How can, how can I have grown up in that period and not have been aware of that, because I was only 50 miles away from Chicago, where a lot of this stuff was going down?”

Well, to be aware of your indifference can lead to denial. Denial is a kind of a tricky, uh, thing to understand. Uh, denial occurs when you are aware of something that’s in(un)conscionable, and you can’t label it, or don’t want to acknowledge it.

Uh, another example would be, if there was a hideous creature standing in front of me, and somebody said… started to describe it to me. And, uh, said how it smelled, what it looked like, and something.

And I was unable to perceive it, and I would say, “No, no! You’re just imagining that. You know that’s not real. You know, let… you’re, you’re being oversensitive. Let’s just, just get on with normal, normal life here.”

That would be a kind of an example of denial, when there’s something that egregious, that’s so obvious to other people, that you can’t see. So, it’s a tricky thing to, to… for us who are white to get our brains around.

Uh, and I was learning that African-Americans in this country have been pointing to racism, that hideous creature, for centuries. And that white folks had not, and still haven’t, have not been able to recognize it, label it, and give it, give it, um, give it, uh, uh, you know, the reality that it’s due, you know. It’s sort of invisible.

So, I started to become aware of my own racial conditioning and it was, was get… was becoming a little bit painful for me, because every time that we… I left the house now, I was aware of my racial conditioning. If I was driving through a fast food place, I was conscious. If the cashier was black, I would get a little anxious, and I was, suddenly, conscious of that. If the cashier was white, I would feel at ease. In my conversations with, uh, acquaintances who were African-American, now I was really sensitive about what I was saying.

“Are my words coming out racist, exposing some deep-seated racism in me.”

Uh, I’m sure people were aware of it, but I was just becoming aware of that stuff, so I was really nervous about what’s coming out.

Uh, watching TV, I would see African-Americans in important peo… places in new shows and, uh, different, different sh…, uh, programs. And I would actu… I would be aware of actually wondering if they were qualified to be in those positions.

So, uh, in public places, I had to think, “Well, how do I interact with African-Americans? Should I smile at them? Should I look in their face? Should I say something? Should I just act nonchalant? But that’s not really doing anything.”

It was very, very painful. I felt very clumsy and awkward, as if I had just read about the history of the piano, and now I was sitting down at a baby grand and tryin’ to perform a Chopin piece.

So, one day, back in 1993, I walk into a local copy shop preoccupied with my own project, but I, uh, at the service counter, I see an African-Am… young, African-American woman giving directions to, uh, the attendant that was serving her. So, I kind of went and hid behind a, uh, kiosk of, of supplies, and watched the whole action. I had never seen an African-American in that shop before, and I’d been going there quite a number of years. In fact, I wasn’t even sure if there were any African-Americans that lived in our town. So, I wanted to see how this white guy that was serving her, eh, uh, handled this unusual situation.

So, as I was watching her, I thought, “Well, look at that young, black woman. She is really competent. She’s really confident in what she’s doin’. She knows her stuff. Look at her take charge there, and she’s nicely dressed, nice pantsuit. I bet she works for some law firm in the area here.” And, uh, so, as I’m thinking this, all of a sudden, I’m thinking, “Hmm, you know what! I’m being patronizing.”

And it really knocked… knocked me for a loop. I have been… had, uh, gone to the third night of the workshop that I referred to. And, so, in this workshop, we were told that we, as white folks, feel superior to black folks, and, uh, and that we are born racists. But we learn racists… racism, and, uh, and, so, we can unlearn it.

So, I’m standing there and I’m having this thought about being patronizing and thinking, “How do I unlearn this, in this situation?”

Uh, I’m tryin’ to apply my, my new understanding here, so, I discovered what I call “a crack in the wall.” The wall is this, uh, is this racial conditioning. And I discovered this little fissure where I could see through, and see that there was a reality beyond the wall. And I asked myself what lay beyond the wall?

Well, as we started traveling, my wife and I, we, we formed many relationships with African-Americans along the way, who were very generous, sharing stories with us. Uh, over the dinner table, they would talk about, uh, racial situations that their family members were involved in.

You know, just coming home from church, being stopped by the police, and being asked, “Why… what are you doing in this neighborhood?”

You know, fellows going out for loans and, uh, being rejected for loans and so forth. These were things I was unaware of. But the generosity of the people that, uh, we were interacting with, was, was… had the effect of breaking down all of this mythology, that we have been raised with, as, as white citizens.

Um, so, after years of participation, uh, in the workshop, uh, going through all the classes, and actually becoming a facilitator myself, I really thought I knew something. But what I discovered is that the truth about race and racial healing lay outside the classroom, beyond the state line, out of my comfort zone. If I had known how many embarrassing moments it would take for me to develop just a little bit of humility in this issue, uh, I probably wouldn’t have accepted the invitation to go to that first workshop. But, you know, embarrassment is a small price to pay for the rewards of engaging in racial healing. The rewards are sharing compassion, sharing forgiveness.

Uh, sharing forgiveness and trusting. Learning how to trust people from whom we’ve been separated, and trust being trustworthy. That’s a big one for me. Learning how to be trustworthy as a white man in this country is a biggie. So, these are the rewards. And, they convince me, that, um, when we eliminate the separation, when we go… somehow whittle away at that crack, we get on the other side of the wall. We engage. We, uh, we connect with folks, and then we learn how we can, how we can, uh, build communities that are, uh, ensuring the well-being of all of its citizens.

The Promise: A Lesson in White Privilege

 

Story Summary:

 What happens when the warm connection between a black woman and a white woman is broken by insensitivity and unconscious white privilege? Are courage, honesty, forgiveness and hope enough to heal the separation? This true story is based on the chapter “The Promise” in the book Longing: Stories of Racial Healing by Phyllis and Eugene Unterschuetz, © Bahá’í Publishing 2010.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  The-Promise-A-Lesson-in-White-Privilege

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Why do you think Kathryn and Georgia chose to tell Phyllis about the things they had to teach their sons?
  2. What might have caused Randa, the waitress in the story, to withdraw so suddenly after Phyllis promised that things would “get better”?
  3. What does Phyllis mean when she asks, “Is this one of the elements of white privilege – having the option to know the truth and then forget it because it doesn’t apply to my life?” What are some other elements of white privilege?
  4. What do you think happened in Randa’s mind or heart that allowed her to respond as she did to Phyllis’s apology?

Resources:

Themes:

  •  African American/Black History
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name is Phyllis Unterschuetz.  And this is adapted from a story in my book, Longing: Stories of Racial Healing.

I can’t think of a finer way to spend my time than sitting around a cozy kitchen table, with my girlfriends.  Drinking good coffee, and sharing bits of ourselves together, in that wonderfully intimate way that women have when we’re feeling safe with each other. And it was in just such a setting that I found myself late one October afternoon 1997 in New London, Connecticut. Sitting with me at the table were Catherine and Georgia. Funny, intense, passionate women, whose company I just couldn’t seem to get enough of. We were fairly new friends but we were having this sisterly feeling kind of wash over us, in great waves of laughter and companionship.

We’d been talking about our children and, kind of, sharing stories of parenting. And at one point, I noticed a definite shift in the energy of the conversation. And all of a sudden, one of the women, and then the other, also, started talking about these, these anguished decisions that they had to make as the mothers of black teenage boys. As they talked their sentences sped up and pretty soon they were, kind of, talking over one another and everything was, kind of, jumbled together. It was it was as if two different voices were coming out of two different mouths but they were really the same voice. They were saying the same things.

And I heard snatches. I remember, I remember hearing them say, “You know, they were just driving along. They weren’t doing anything wrong. They’re stopped just because they’re black. Really they weren’t doing anything wrong and all of a sudden somebody’s screaming at him through the window of their car. ‘Show me your license. Show me your registration.’ And they’re flustered. They don’t know what to do. And I have to teach my son how to move his hands so slowly so that they won’t think he’s reaching for a weapon. And I had to teach my son exactly what to do, what to say, how to look, which words he should use, and which words he should never, ever say. Otherwise he might be shot.”

And one of them said to me, “Can you imagine what that feels like. Having to teach your son those things?” You know, their faces had gotten kind of rigid and tough, as they spoke. As if any softness in such matters, even speaking them to me, could be deadly for their sons.

And me, I just sat there and tried to empathize. I tried to swallow my horror. I tried to stand in solidarity with them, you know, and say something like, “Yes, yes.  I can see what you’re saying. I can relate to what you’re telling me.” But no, instead, this horror just rose up in my throat, acidic. And I wanted to purge it by screaming out my shock and my disbelief. I wanted to say, “Here? Seriously that happens here in New England?” What did I think, did I think? That it happens only in the south? Or did I truly, on some level think, it happens only on TV and in the movies?

I wanted to say, “Those sweet boys. How could that possibly happen to them?” But, you see, if I’d said anything like that, that would have just diminished their gift to me. And so I gave them back the only thing I had of equal value, which was my honesty. And I had to say, “No…No, I can’t imagine what that feels like.” And what I didn’t say was not only can’t I imagine it but I don’t have to imagine it, you see, because I’ll never have to teach my son those things.

Not quite three years later, in the summer of 2000, my husband and I were having dinner in a restaurant with our son, Eric. We were in Wilmette, Illinois and Eric was about 21 years old at the time, if I remember correctly. And we were having the greatest time with our waitress. Her name was Randa. Randa was African-American. She was probably in her mid-30s, I’m guessing, and she was just one of these people makes you feel like you’ve been friends forever, you know, just vibrant and connective. So, towards the end of our meal, Randa came over to our table and she was carrying the pot of coffee to pour us some more. And we started talking about our kids. I think she told me a story about her young daughter. And, you know, as she was talking and we’re sharing about parenting in these chaotic times, the tone of her conversation shifted.

I should have recognized that shift but I didn’t. And she got real serious and quiet and all of a sudden, she said, “You know, it’s not actually my daughter I’m worried about.” She said, “I have a teenage son and I am so worried about him. There’s so much he has to deal with out there,” and her face had just become, lost its animation, and its joy, and its brightness, and just become burdened and weighed down, and fearful looking.

And I thought, oh, I wanted to say something just to, just to reassure her, just to make her feel better. And I thought, I know what she’s feeling because I’ve raised a teenage son. I know how hard that is, watching them struggle into maturity. And I was thinkin’, my 21 year old, and I thinkin’ things got so much better as he got older. And so instead of taking her hand, which was what I initially wanted to do, I just gestured over to my son Eric, as evidence that I knew what I was talking about. And I looked at her earnestly and I said,  “You know what? I just want to tell you that it gets better. It gets better the closer your son comes to adulthood, the better it’s going to get. The older he is, the easier it will be, I promise.”

And then everything changed. The light just went out of Randa’s eyes. Before there’d been something flowing, now this heavy veil fell between us. The light was gone. The warmth, the trust, all of that connection gone. She was gone. And in her place was this woman, standing rigidly with a pot of coffee and these blank eyes that just looked straight ahead And she just dropped our check on the table.

She said, “Yeah, whatever. If you say so,” and then she turned and walked away. And it was like I’d been slapped in the face. What happened? I just went over every word in my mind. I couldn’t imagine. Had I said something to upset her?

I started thinking through memories of conversations with other black women. Thinking maybe there I would find some clue as to what I’d said. And, you know, as soon as I did that, didn’t take but a minute and I was back in Connecticut sitting at the table with Catherine and Georgia and listening to them express, what, not their excitement for their sons to get older? But, but no. Their wish that their sons could stay young forever. Knowing that the older they got, the more danger they’d be in. Hearing their anguish as they talked about sending these precious young men out each day into a society that perceives black males as criminals. And then hearing again my own admission. “No. I don’t know what that feels like.”

So now, I knew what it was that had shattered the trust. I knew what I’d said because my promise, you see, was a fraud. Things were not necessarily going to get better for her son as he got older. And in fact, it was likely that they would get worse. It was likely that the closer he came to adulthood, the more frequently he would be perceived as dangerous and therefore the more danger he would be in.

And the thing is, the thing is, I knew this and I forgot. How is that possible to forget a truth like that? I ask myself, “Is this one of the elements of sneaky white privilege? Having the option to know something, to know the truth and then forget it because I think that it doesn’t apply to my life?” And because of my forgetting, any hopefulness that woman had felt, had been replaced by the inescapable reality that I was just one more ignorant white woman, who actually thought I knew what she faced in her life.

So, I was in there and I’m thinking what am I going to do? What am I going to do? And as soon as I said that, Catherine in Georgia came to my rescue once again. I could see and hear them, I tell you, as clearly as if they were sitting right at the table with me, finishing up their coffee. And they just looked at me, they just looked into my face, and they said, “Get up off your butt, girl, and do something.”

And I’m talking to them, these invisible women, like, and I’m saying, “I know. I know. I will. I will. Honest, I will but I don’t know what to do.”

And their voices came in a chorus, “Yes, you do. You do know.” And they were right. I did. I excuse myself from the table and I went to look for Randa. And I looked for her in the lobby, I looked for her all around the restaurant, I even looked in the smoking section in the back, which they had back in those days. I even went in the restroom and looked under the doors of the stalls trying, to find her and I couldn’t. And I was ready to go into the kitchen if I had to. And fortunately, I didn’t have to go that far because I looked up and Randa was coming out through the heavy kitchen doors and she was carrying a big tray covered with plates of food. And she just stopped when she saw me still and I, I stood in front of her just still myself waiting for some kind of inspiration.

And finally, I just opened my mouth and I just let the words fall out ineloquent and awkward. And I said to her,  “I’m sorry. I just want to tell you that I’m sorry. I know things are not the same for your son as they are for mine. I know that things will only get harder for him as he gets older. And I knew that. I knew it already but I forgot. And I know how much I hurt you and I’m sorry.” And I couldn’t see any clue on her face about how she felt and she just looked at me for a really long time. And then she turned and, you know, I thought she was just going to walk away, which wouldn’t have surprised me, really, but she didn’t walk away.

She set her tray down on a table and she turned back to me. And then she reached out her arms and she took me in her arms. She took me and she held me. And we hugged each other really tightly for several minutes.  And then all of a sudden, in that hug, she put her head down on my shoulder and she started to weep. And I tell you, I don’t know how long we stood in that embrace but we were there. We were consoling, rocking, weeping, together. Each of us giving and taking comfort at the same time. And all the activities of the restaurant bustled unheeded around us. And when her tears were finally spent, she stepped back and looked at me. And she managed a small smile and she said, “You know it is going to be OK.” She said, “With you and me, people like us, working together with the help of God. It’ll be OK. We’ll do it with His help.”

Now, I just dumbly nodded my agreement. I couldn’t speak. I don’t remember who looked away first. I don’t remember how we parted. I don’t remember how I got out the door and into the car. I just remember, the rocking, and the weeping, and the consoling, and feeling that that web of connection being rewoven as we stood there together. And the only thought in my mind, the only clear thought I had at that moment, was there’s a different promise I need to make. And this is the promise. That for the rest of my life I will work for unity. I will work for healing. I will work for justice. That is a promise I can make and that is a promise that with the help of God I can keep.

Learning Long Division and White Superiority from My “Sweet” Third Grade Teacher

 

Story Summary:

 In the early 1960s, at a time when the hierarchy of race was evident in much of the country, a Black student feels relief to encounter a White teacher who operates without apparent bias. However, as the school year progresses, the student discovers that, in spite of her kind heart, his teacher unknowingly perpetuates White superiority by unselfconsciously promoting cultural and social standards that are rooted in “White” cultural and social norms; norms that might have worked for her, but not for everyone. It’s a lesson that is even more valuable for today’s “colorblind”, “post-racial” society.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Learning-Long-Division-and-White-Superiority-from-My-Sweet-Third-Grade-Teacher

Discussion Questions:

  1.  One of the major points of this story is that in the United States “Whiteness” acts as an invisible, unspoken, socially unacknowledged set of cultural, political, educational, etc. standards by which we all are forced to live. Since those standards aren’t talked about, they are perceived to constitute a neutral, normal, and (if you are White) benign quality of life. As the story relates, that doesn’t work for everyone.
  2. Try this: If you self-identify or are socially identified as “White” – Over the next day, without forcing the issue, try to make a mental note of how many “White” images you see versus images of everyone else. Look for things like “White” mannequins in stores, “White” people on product labels, images of “White” people in books and magazines, on medical charts and TV shows, in ads on billboards and buses. Before hearing the author’s story, were you ever self-conscious of those things?
  3. To read and do: Roger Bannister is credited with being the first man to run a mile in under four minutes. Matthew Henson is purported to be the first man to reach the summit of the North Pole. Read a book or a few of the numerous online accounts of each of these men’s lives. Why do you suppose absolutely none of the literature on Bannister ever calls him the first “White” man to run a sub four-minute mile? In contrast, why do you suppose all of the literature on Henson calls him the first “Black” (or African-American) man to reach the North Pole?
  4.  Did you know? . . .  The first woman in space (1963) was Russian Cosmonaut, Valentina Tereshkova. Twenty years later, the first American woman in space was Sally Ride. Consult a variety of sources and read their stories . . . Notice that there is absolutely no mention in any of their histories about them being “White”.  The first Black woman in space was Mae Jemison in 1992. The first Latina in space, in 1993, was Ellen Ochoa. The first Japanese woman in space was Chiaki Mukai in 1994. Consult a variety of sources and read about them. Notice that every single account of their stories mentions their “race”. To what do you ascribe these different treatments?

Resources:

  •  The Right Hand of Privilege by Steven Jones, PHD. jonesandassociatesconsulting.com. Jones & Associates Consulting, Inc.
  • Privilege Revealed: How Invisible Preference Undermines America by Stephanie M. Wildman (Introduction, Chapter 1Making Systems of Privilege Visible”, and Chapter 7 “The Quest for Justice: The Rule of Law and Invisible systems of Privilege”
  • Understanding White Privilege from the Teaching/Learning Social Justice series (Chapter 2 “What’s In It For Us: Why We Would Explore What it Means to be White”)
  • Anti-Bias Curriculum: Tools for Empowering Young Children by Louise Derman Sparks and the A.B.C. Task Force
  •  Beyond Heroes and Holidays: A Practical Guide to K – 12 Anti-Racist, Multicultural Education and Staff Development by Lee, Mankart, and Okazawa-Rey
  • Eight Habits of the Heart by Taulbert Clifton

Themes:

  •  African American/Black History
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Identity
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Workplace

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name is La’Ron Williams and I want to share with you just a tiny, little piece of a much larger story that I wrote about 12 years ago. It was a story examining the role that race played in shaping the structure of the community in which I lived. The original story is about 55 minutes long but this is, like I said, just a tiny, little piece so I hope you’ll stay with me through the whole thing.

A long, long time ago, way back when I was growing up, there was a story that I used to hear over and over and over again about the way that America thought of itself. Now, it didn’t come as a straight-out narrative. It came to me in tiny, little snippets and you’ll probably recognize some of these. Things like, “land of the free and home of the brave,” or “with liberty and justice for all,” or “we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.” That kind of thing. And taken in the aggregate, taken together, they constitute a kind of a narrative that says that this country is free and very equal and equitable place. And so, I grew up with the notion that that it should be like that.

But when I was a boy, way back when I was born in 1951. Jim Crow segregation was still the law. It was very, very obvious and very, very thorough in some places like Georgia where my father was from. And in some places like Flint where I was from, Flint, Michigan, it was not so obvious. Not so brutal, not so open but it was there, because it was everywhere. It was all over the country. So, I’m one of those people who remembers drinking from the segregated drinking fountain, for example, or having to sit in the balcony of the segregated movie theater, or having to swim on one side of the segregated swimming pool. And I, especially, remember, one time when my family took a trip to Washington D.C. and we weren’t allowed to eat in a restaurant. We were greeted at the door by a man who simply, very matter of factly, told us that we couldn’t eat there because they didn’t “serve Negroes.” And I remember my brother, as we walked away, said, “That’s okay, because we don’t eat them.”

I didn’t read about those things in books. I remember those things. They constitute a part of my upbringing, a part of my lived experience. And you may notice that my lived experience didn’t match the stories that I was told about the way this country was. And so, what that meant was, that, that I was kind of like I was two people. There was the person who really, really wanted to be free and equal and to believe the stories I was being told. And there was the person who knew that it was a lie. And these guys didn’t always trade places. I mean, sometimes I would be both of those guys at the same time.

Well, the fall of 1959 was when I went into third grade and my teacher that year was a woman named Mrs. Paris. Now that’s not her real name but for story purposes, Mrs. Paris was my third-grade teacher. And at the school that I went to, most of the teachers were black. Most of the students were black. It was, it was a largely African-American school and Mrs. Paris was the first white teacher that I had ever had. So, when I walked in the door, I felt a sense of trepidation. I mean, ’cause, because I didn’t know what she might be like. She might be like that guy who told us we couldn’t eat in the restaurant. So, I was ready for anything but my heart was also open because I was two people and one of them wanted to believe that things could be fair.

Well, as the year went on, I learned that Mrs. Paris really was a pretty good teacher. She taught us a lot of things and she always had a smile on her face and I like that piece of it. And I love the fact that she, she loved to sing. She was always singing songs in class. She taught us long division. She taught us how to say the Pledge of Allegiance, every, single day. She was a very loving and kind teacher who never, ever, ever gave up on any of her students, even those students that were considered slow. She would take special time with them to make sure they caught on with all the lessons.

Well, now, there was one time when the entire class was working on painting, a huge banner mural. And Mrs. Paris had taped this kind of really thick butcher paper up all around, all the walls of the room. And each student was assigned a part of the butcher paper to draw on. And so, we had to draw our part of the painting before we started painting. Now, I was a pretty good artist and so I finished my part of the banner before anybody else. So, Mrs. Paris came over and she gave me a number of different cups of paint that she had mixed up beforehand. And she’d labeled all of these cups.

So, I picked up one of the cups of paint and I started to paint one of the people in my portion of the mural but I didn’t get very far because one of my few white classmates standing right next to me, suddenly became, like, super exasperated. She put her hands on her hips, (disapproving breathing), and she’s going like this, (exasperated look), and only in a way that only a 8 year old kid can do. And I thought she was out of her mind. What’s going on with you? What are you doing? And, and she looked at me and she says, “You’re not supposed to use brown to color history people.”

I had no idea what she meant. I just looked at her and I started to say something. But before I could say anything. She called the teacher over. She said, “Mrs. Paris, he’s using the wrong color.”

I can almost hear all the heads turn of all my fellow students as they looked to watch Mrs. Paris walk over. Mrs. Paris walked over, she reached down, and she took the cup of paint that I’ve been using. She picked up another cup of paint and just handed it to me. And then she walked away without saying a word. So, I took a cup of pain and I turned it around and I looked at it and the label said, “flesh.” Now, I mean, it’s not like I didn’t know what flesh colored paint was. I had used flesh colored paints and flesh colored crayons hundreds of times before that. I mean, I didn’t mind using them. I knew it wasn’t the color of my flesh but it was the color of a lot of people. It was the color of Mrs. Paris, basically, and my classmates, and people that I admired on TV, like the whole cast of “Father Knows Best” and “Ozzie and Harriet” and I didn’t mind using it. It’s, it’s just that this time, with this teacher, for the first time, I became aware of how bad I felt not to use that color.

Well, as the year progressed, there were a lot of incidents like that. I mean, times when Mrs. Paris would be talking about something and my white classmates seemed to know what she meant even in advance. Times when we would sing songs from our school songbook and all the white students seemed to know all the words in advance. I mean, at home I sang songs by The Drifters and the Shirelles and pop tunes like that. And sometimes spiritual songs and gospel tunes. And I knew all those words by heart and half of them I still know. But somehow, none of those stories or songs ever seemed to appear in my school books. I mean, it’s not that I was upset that I didn’t know the school stuff sometimes. It’s just that for the first time, with this teacher, I became aware of how bad I felt that they did know it.

I didn’t have the words to describe it back then but I know now that, without meaning to, without even trying to, Mrs. Paris was teaching her black students to feel ashamed of the way that they did things. I mean, she was a good teacher and there was no malice in her heart. But she was teaching us to be ashamed. Just by using the school books and the school curriculum in the way that it was intended, she was teaching her black students shame. But there was something else that was going on too. Because at the same time that we were learning shame, she was teaching a lesson to the white students. She was teaching them superiority. Only none of us thought of it that way. I didn’t. Mrs. Paris didn’t. My classmates didn’t. It had been going on all our lives. But to them, to me, to her, to all of us, it was just normal, just standard, just the way it was, kind of like TV, a kind of an official story.

It was because of TV, it was because of shows like, “Father Knows Best,” that I knew what the suburbs looked like. It was because of programs like, “The Lone Ranger” that I knew what Indians, “How!” talked like. TV and Mrs. Paris and the movies and all kinds of things, the school books, gave me a kind of standard that was rooted in white culture, rooted in a white European way of thinking about things. But without naming it, without even talking about it, it was just considered standard. But in a way, I was lucky because when it came to what Mrs. Paris and the movies and the books and things had to say about being African-American, I knew that it didn’t even come close to matching the reality that I was living.

But what if I had been one of my white classmates? What if that paint that Mrs. Paris mixed up, at least came close to matching the color that I was? What if a Johnson’s Band-Aid didn’t stand out like a glaring beacon of mis-coloration whenever I stuck it, whenever I stuck it on my arm? What if everything around me told me that I was the standard, that I was just normal, just the way things should be? And what if everything around me reinforced that notion? What if I lived in a community where practically everybody looked like me and I never even heard a different point of view?

You know, crayon manufacturers no longer make a crayon that they call flesh but there are pantyhose that are called “nude.” And the color of the nude pantyhose is the same color that the flesh colored crayon used to be. I wonder whose nude are they talking about?

There, there’s also a color of makeup that’s called blush. It’s the same color that the flesh colored crayon used to be only it’s a little bit redder. And there’s a color of makeup that’s called suntan. It’s the same color that the flesh colored crayon used to be only it’s a little bit brown there. So, I’m left to think, in what ways is the flesh colored crayon is still with us? In what ways do you notice that we still live surrounded by flesh colored crayons?

Searching for My Appalachia: A Modern Jack Tale

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SEARCHING FOR
MY APPALACHIA:
A Modern Jack Tale

kevin-cordi

A short story told by
professional storyteller
Kevin Cordi

Its hard not to picture the stereotypes associated with terms like “redneck” or “hillbilly.”  These stereotypes are often the butt of many jokes.  But like any stereotype, these are often labels unfairly placed on people. In his story, Searching for My Appalachia: A Modern Jack Tale, Storyteller Kevin Cordi takes a closer look at his mountain roots thanks to a chance encounter with a modern day “redneck.”

Having spent time in the mountains of West Virgina as a child, Cordi is no stranger to the Appalachian tales of a silly hillbilly, Jack, who sealed up the northwest winds or climbed a beanstalk in search of his fortune.  To Cordi, being called a hillbilly simply meant holes in your overalls.  But when he shares this with his mother she states that he shouldn’t make fun of people or let what people call him determine his future. It is not until years later when he moves away and gains employment as a traveling salesman that Cordi learns who he really is and can take pride in his mountain heritage.

In this chance encounter, Cordi meets someone others classify a “redneck.”  Puzzled by the reluctance and fear of others to connect with the so-called “redneck,” Cordi knocks on the door and begins a short conversation with a very pleasant man named Jack.  Jack explains to Cordi about the nature of the term redneck and states, “When did dirt and hard work become something bad?”  It is then that Cordi suddenly realizes that stereotypes exist because it is easier to be afraid of someone “different” rather than to see them for who they really are.  And in that moment, Cordi realizes that he’s now found his fortune and longs to go back home.

This touching story demonstrates that while stereotypes may be part of society, we must be ready and willing to peel back their layers to get to know the real person who is often hidden behind them.

Watch this revealing story that shows that people are so much more than labels:

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See many other short free videos like this
one on the Showcase Page of this site.
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How Do You Say Blueberry in Spanish?

 

Story Summary:

 Antonio explores the challenges and joys of trying to raise a bilingual child. As anxious new parents, Antonio and his wife ask, “Are two languages better than one?” and find humor along the way.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: How Do You Say Blueberry In Spanish

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why did Antonio and his wife begin to doubt their choice of raising their son to be bilingual?
  2. What is the advantage of speaking more than one language?
  3. Two-way Immersion (TWI) classes or bilingual immersion classrooms are springing up in many urban/suburban communities where people new to America settle. What used to be a rare challenge for the public schools has become mandatory. Also, many English-only speakers want these programs because parents understand that their children’s world is much more global than the world in which they grew up. Would you put your child into classes that teach core subjects in a language other than English?

Resource:

Themes:

  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Identity
  • Languages
  • Latino American/Latinos
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name is Antonio Sacre. Have you ever felt in your head that what you were doing was right but in your heart, you weren’t so sure? When my son was born, my wife and I decided we were going to speak to him in English and Spanish. So, my wife would sing and talk to him in English, and I would sing and talk to my son in Spanish.

And as the months went by and he began to crawl, we began to think, “What will his first word be? Will it be in English? Mommy. Or Spanish? Papa. Cat or Gato?”

And when he was about 9 or 10 months he said his first word. “Ba.” I said to my wife, “What did he say?” She said, “I think he said, ‘Ba.’” Ok, it wasn’t English or Spanish but it was a clearly enunciated syllable.

And we knew from our parenting books that real speech was not too far behind. And it was cute. The first few things that he said was “Ba” for everything. Cat-“Ba,” dog-“Ba,” Mommy-“Ba,” Daddy-“Ba,” fire truck-“ Ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba.” And we would laugh. Now after a while, it was still just “ba” and I was beginning to get a little worried, although I didn’t say anything about that to my wife.

Then our neighbor, Catherine, came over. She’s a high school teacher in the Los Angeles school district and she has a couple kids. She lives just, lives a couple homes up; we love her. And she asked, innocently enough, “So is your son speaking any words yet?”

I said, “Yeah, yeah. Watch this. What do baseball players play with, Honey?”

“Ba.”

“That’s right. A bat. And what you take before you go to sleep? A…”

“Ba.”

“That’s right a bath. And what’s on the other side of your chest?”

“Ba.”

“What’s the opposite of good?”

“Ba.”

“What’s Ebenezer Scrooge’s favorite word?”

“Ba.”

“What’s the chemical symbol for Barium?”

“Ba.”

“What difficult exam do lawyers need to pass?”

“Ba.”

“See Catherine, my son is a genius!” and we had a huge laugh about it. And Catherine left and that night, though, I sat my wife done after we put our son to sleep. And I said, “Ya know? Maybe we’re not doing the right thing. Maybe he’s confused? Maybe we should just speak to him in English and then he’ll learn Spanish as he got older?”

My wife said, “No, absolutely not! We are going to raise him bilingually.” I love that about her. Things that, in my heart, I wasn’t sure that we doing the right thing for our son. And I decided that we would continue to speak to him bilingually at least until we saw our pediatrician in a couple of months.

Now the reason that this was part of our discussion about raising our son is that my father is from Cuba. And when he came here, he didn’t have any English and it was so hard for him. And all my life growing up I heard about how great it would have been if he had been bilingual. He did learn English eventually, and he met my mom who is Irish American. So, I’m Cuban Irish American. Or like a friend of mine calls me a leprechauno.

I grew up speaking both Spanish and English because my grandmother lived with us. She came from Cuba, as well, and only spoke Spanish. So in my life, I was bilingual. When I got to be about 6 or 7, I stopped speaking Spanish because kids at school made fun of me. And when I got older, that precious gift of speaking those two languages, was gone. Now luckily for me, my grandmother made sure that I continued to speak Spanish. And as a high school student, I learned Spanish from her. And so all of this was part of my background. We wanted to raise our son in these two languages. I knew how important it was but I still was worried about his ability to communicate.

So then we went to see the pediatrician. Dr. George is so sweet and he looked at our son and checked him out. Everything was fine. And then I said to him that I was a little worried about his language. And he said, “No, no, no!” He was adamant that we raise son our son in two languages. He said that kids that have two languages, of course, get to communicate with more people. But, also, there is a lot of research that supports that when they are raised bilingually, their brains are actually stronger in many other functions; not just language.

I had doctor’s orders. Raise my son in two languages. That made me feel a little better. And a few weeks after that visit, my son actually spoke his first word. He said, clear as day, “ball.” Oh, we were so excited! And it was a few… couple days after that, he began to speak more words and then it came in like a flood. Words in both English and in Spanish. It was fantastic! And whenever he said a word in English, I made sure that he knew the Spanish equivalent. So when he said “ball,’ I said “pelota.” And when he said, “Thanks,” I said, “Gracias.” And when he said, “Fire truck!” I said, “Camión de bomberos.” And when he said, “Blueberry,” I said, “Variedad de arándano que es azul.” Why does Spanish need thirteen syllables to say blueberry? I called my dad, “How do you say blueberry?” He said, “Mi hijo,” which means my son, “we didn’t have blueberries in Cuba.” So I looked it up in the dictionary and it says variedad de arándano que es azul, a variety of cranberry that is blue. Ah! It’s driving me crazy!

But there are some words in Spanish that are so beautiful in Spanish they don’t translate into English. And the way my father says to his grandson, “Mi tesoro, mi vida, mi alma, mi corazón,” my love, my heart, my treasure, my soul. It really means, Sweetie or Honey but it doesn’t really translate. And the specificity of English is amazing. We have blueberries and boysenberries and blackberries and raspberries and strawberries. And in Spanish they are just arándanos (berries). So I want my son to have those two languages.

It was pretty exciting! And as we are going along, my son and I would make up our own vernacular. So I have a little watch alarm and it went off one day and my son says, “Oye, Papa, que es eso?” (What is that?) And I didn’t know how to say the watch alarm that chimes on the hour.

So, I said, “Suena las campanas.” It just came to my mind. I didn’t know exactly what it meant. And a few weeks later, I was with my dad and my son and my little watch alarm went off.

And my son said, “Abuelo, suena las campanas.”

And my dad started laughing. I said, “What, what did he say?”

He said, “Mi hijo, it doesn’t really translate but what your son said to me was, ‘Granddad, the bell tolls for thee.’”

So now whenever we hear a bell or a bong or a horn, my son says, “Suena las campanas, the bell tolls for thee!” And so my dad now calls my son, Campanas, (Bell). The first of many nicknames my son is gonna have from my dad as he grows up – a Cuban tradition!

Well, now that my son is older and we’re beginning to think about school for him, I have discovered dual language programs. Dual language programs are when the kids study half the day, or more or less, in one language and half the day in English. It could be Spanish or Japanese or Chinese – whatever it is. Now in Los Angeles, ironically, there are a lot of dual language programs but none close to our house. And the ones that we can get into in other districts are very far away. But I still thinks this is what’s right. I actually did some research and I found out that the research team of Thomas and Collier state that kids’ tests scores are actually higher in junior high if they study in both languages. And we wanted that for our son. Well, I mentioned that to Catherine, our neighbor, and I said, “You know what, the waiting lists are really long and they are really far away.”

And she said, “Oh, no! Your son doesn’t have to be on the waiting list because he speaks both languages already. He’s at an advantage because of that.” And then I knew in my heart we were doing the right thing. And then she said, “Why don’t you send him to our local elementary school?”

And we said, “We’d love to but it just doesn’t have a dual language program. That’s a huge part of what we want.” A week later she called us and said she had marched down to the principal’s office and said that if they wanted, they could institute a dual language program. I never thought…it never even occurred to me to do that. And here’s this neighbor doing that for us, for our family. And a month after that, there was a meeting at the school about possibly instituting this dual language program. I was moved by Catherine’s desire to help us, to help the neighborhood. Now will that dual language program go? I don’t know. But I’m moved by Catherine’s work and by the neighborhood and the principal.

And like my dad said, “Centavo a centavo se llena elsaco.” Penny by penny, we fill the sack.

Memorial: Youth Violence Then and Now

Part 1:

 

Part 2:

 

Story Summary:

 Susan O’Halloran attends a Chicago Memorial service in November of 2011 for children who have died through violence. Being at the Memorial sparks a high school memory for Susan of going to a youth conference in 1965 and meeting Cecil, an African American teenager, who became Sue’s friend. One evening, in 1967, Sue receives a phone call that changes everything.

Being at a Chicago Memorial service in November of 2011 for children who have died through gun violence sparks memories for Susan O’Halloran of people she has lost. At the end of the service, the congregation moves into the streets to plead for peace as everyone asks the continuing questions: Will the violent deaths of young lives end? When? And what is our part in ending violence?

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Memorial-Youth-Violence-Then-and-Now-Part-One and Memorial-Youth-Violence-Then-and-Now-Part-Two

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are the causes of violent deaths in America? People are always responsible for their own actions, but how does America’s legacy of segregation and discrimination play into violence?
  2. Are you for more restrictions on guns? More policing? How would greater educational and job opportunities affect violence?
  3. If you could be Mayor of a large U.S. city, what would you do to curb violence?
  4. Do you believe as Sue says that “these are all our children”? Why would someone in one part of a town be concerned with what happens in another part? How are we connected to one another? How does violence affect even the more “peaceful” parts of town?
  5. Sue remembers that she was directly touched by violence. What affect has a young person’s death had on you?

Resources:

  • The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander and Cornell West
  • Youth Violence: Theory, Prevention and Intervention by Kathryn Seifert, PhD

Themes:

  • Asian Americans/Asians
  • African American/Black History
  • Crossing Cultures
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • First Nations/Native Americans
  • Latino American/Latinos
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

Hi, I’m Susan O’Halloran. Do you ever watch the news sometimes and you’re like, enough already! But then every so often, something happens, not things that are just happening to other people anymore. I want to share a story with you about a memorial service I went to in Chicago, November 2011. And a memory was triggered by that memorial, something that had happened long, long ago.

 

The first thing I noticed was the checkmarks. They had asked us to sign in with our name and then to check “yes” if we had lost a family member or close friend to violence. When I arrived, the memorial service had already begun. I made the long trek from my Evanston, Illinois home, down Lakeshore Dr, across the Dan Ryan Expressway, to the Southside of Chicago and the gothic style church of St. Sabinas. When I walked into that vestibule I heard an orchestra playing inside and I walked up to the sign-in book and I went to add my name. I couldn’t check the box. I was fortunate, my life hadn’t been touched by that kind of tragedy. But what I saw was hundreds of checkmarks already made. Each check said, “Yes, I’ve lost a loved one to violence.” Well, an usher came up to me, an African-American woman with a wide smile, wearing a black pillbox hat, a black suit, white gloves. She handed me a program, an unlit candle, and directed me to follow her. She walked me past rows of mourners and them she offered me a seat at the end of a pew. I was there. I was at the Urban Dolorosa memorial. Urban Dolorosa means “the city of sorrow,” and our city was deep in sorrow.

 

In those previous three school years, from September 2008 to August 2011, four thousand children had been shot in Chicago. Two hundred sixty-three kids were dead because of violence. Four thousand shot and 263 dead. Congregations of all faiths and other non-profits had gathered together to form Urban Dolorosa to say we had to stop the denial, the ignorance, the indifference, the hopelessness. They were calling for a comprehensive, coordinated plan to end the blood bath.

 

Now, I walked in there expecting I would hear community leaders rage about, you know, how decades of injustice and marginalizing whole communities, was a recipe for violence. I thought they would remind us that the very victims of the carnage are the people who are getting blamed. I thought I’d hear politicians who would make speeches about how unemployment, inferior education, and pouring resources into youth and community development, this would benefit all of us. But that’s not what I had walked into at all. No, instead, this memorial was a, kind of, sacred musical cane. A mix of opera and choral music, sung in English and Spanish with strains of the blues and African-American spirituals, punctuated by a poetic libretto with an art installation and candlelight and photographs projected images of those left behind. Tear stained faces wide in disbelief or pinched tight in pain. Pictures of people holding each other up – their grief too much to bear alone. My surprise of what this memorial was, quickly melted into a feeling that, yes, this was exactly right. This was how to remember children who would never grow up to be young men and young women.

I remember a poem I read in college, it stayed with me all these years, by the poet Bill Knott; just three simple lines.

The only response
 to a child’s grave is
 to lie down before it and play dead

And then youth performers walked the aisles and took photographs from people. Photographs of their slain loved ones. And they brought those photographs to the altar and began to build this tall sculpture of smiling children’s faces – a mound of grief growing before us. And then they scattered all about as the names were read. “Rahim Washington, Eva Henry, Jose Corona…” Each name pierced the air!

And those youth performers, one of them came right by me. A 16-year-old girl with a round face, a very solemn face, so close her hand was brushing my shoulder and she lit her candle and she leaned over and lit mine and then gestured with her head for me to light the candle, the man beside me.  And all of a sudden, candlelight was swimming up and down the pews of St. Sabinas as more names were read. “Alanzo Jones, Kabauro Ottowani, Arianna Gibson…” It was as if I could hear a drumbeat underscoring every name, every life.  And then, this teenager blew out her flame, and poof, poof, poof, all of the sanctuary, flames gone, blown out. And she handed me her extinguished candle and left. It took me a moment to look into the aisle beside me and see her shoes were still there. All up and down the aisles of St. Sabinas. No more teens, just their empty shoes. My heart collapsed, gave way to the sound of a beating drum, and the memory flooded in.

Nineteen sixty-five. The first time I saw him, he was playing the drums or I should say an upside-down waste basket. I had met Cecil 46 years before. We were both 15 years old and we were at the YCS regional conference. YCS. Young Christian Students. I had met, I had joined the local group at my school that year and I decided to go to the regional conference. It was held at St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Indiana just about an hour and a half outside of Chicago. Oh, it was a whole week at the end of summer. Seminars and speakers and panel discussions. It was such great fun. And most of all it meant friendships with kids from all over the city and neighboring states. And since things were completely segregated in the 1960s, that meant for most of us it would be our first interracial experience.

Now the night I met Cecil, we girls decided to sneak out of our dorm. We were going to sneak out of our dorm and go to the boys’ dorm after curfew. For someone like me who rarely broke the rules, this was high adventure. We dressed in dark turtlenecks and long pants. I could almost hear the theme music from the I Spy TV show. Wah wah wah wah. We actually crawled on our bellies, like, pulled ourselves with our elbows across this long empty field that separated us from the boys. And when we got to the boys’ dorm, those boys were in ecstasy… And not at all interested in us. Cecil, of slight build and wearing glasses and his friend tall, thin Joe, had instructed the other boys, who were white, and how to turn their metal wastebaskets into drums. And they’d given them the steady pulse that most of the boys could handle. And then Cecil and Joe, they played on top of their beat. Now Joe was like the master of ceremonies. He’d tipped back in his chair and drum between his legs and the call out to the boys and encourage them. “That’s right. You’re doing it. That’s right. That’s right.” Master of ceremonies.

Cecil was the serious one. He would cock his head to one side always an ear down to the drum. Monitoring if the intent and effect were one in the same. His rhythm seemed to come from the base of his spine, crawl up his back, push his arms from behind so fast that his hands would blur. These boys looked so blissed out, their faces seemed to say, “Yes. What you’re playing goes with what I’m playing, goes with what he’s playing. Yes, yes, yes. We’re in this together. Yes.”

Well, after that regional conference, at the end of the week. We had small group discussions throughout the week. Oh, Cecil was in my group so I saw him every day. And we talked about group leadership and school spirit and racial stereotyping. And sometimes after that seminar Cecil and I just weren’t done; we had to keep talking, piggybacking off of each other’s ideas. We walked the cinder running track back behind the classrooms.

Cecil’d say things like, “They should have a UN for kids!” And I go, “Yeah!” I’d agree. “Yeah! I wish we could meet kids from China and Africa and France!” Having just met kids from the other side of the city, the other side of the color line, we were ready to take on the world. And then by the end of that week was Friday night dance. Now in my neighborhood the thought of dancing with a boy who was black, it would have been unheard of. An impossibility, but by the end of the week, hey, Cecil was my pal. Of course, I would dance with Cecil.

And when Cecil came towards me. He was shorter than me. He looked tall and elegant. And he took my hand like it was a jewel. And he walked me out to an empty space on the dance floor and we began to slow dance. Now in my neighborhood, slow dancing meant the boys and girls would fall on each other and kind of move sideways, swaying like zombies. But with Cecil slow dancing meant walking coolly, purposefully, covering that dance floor three, four times with space between your bodies to twist and dip.  Cecil would duck under my arm, he would twirl me in light circles. He would graze his hand across my waist as he circled me. I looked great just standing there.

Well, after that regional conference, I joined citywide YCS. And so did Cecil. We had meetings. We had more dances. We had picnics at the lakefront. We had press conferences to announce our newest initiatives but, most of all, what we did was plan study days, kind of like the regional conference. We bring kids together from all over the city and we would study, look at some kind of social justice issue. And once Cecil and I co-chaired a study day examining the black power movement. Ah, the day was exciting and contentious and scary and thrilling. We got people thinking and some people really upset and angry. And I just remember afterwards sharing a Coke with Cecil and the two of us sitting there saying, “We did it! We did it!” Though, I don’t think either of us quite knew what we had done.

I remember that last leadership meeting in 1967, we were juniors in high school. It was the last meeting that Cecil attended. One of our adult mentors suggested an icebreaker for the beginning of the meeting. He said, “Why don’t you go ‘round and everybody say how they want to be remembered. You tell us what you would want written on your gravestone.”

Well, Katie went first and she said, “I want my gravestone to say she was alive.” And I went next and I joked I want my gravestone to say she IS alive. And everybody started laughing. And then Cecil said. Cecil said. Cecil said, “What?” See, he’s after me and I thought this mixture of pride and self-consciousness because I made everybody laugh so I don’t remember what Cecil said. I mean he was the good listener not me. What did Cecil want on his gravestone. It became so important to remember.

The first thing we heard was that he’d been shot. I stayed on the phone with YCS friends long into the night. It was as if we held a phone vigil. Maybe we could pull him through. Cecil and Joe had been to a dance in their neighborhood that night and they were walking home and this other kid, older a little bit. They didn’t know him. Walked up to them and said, “Where are you from?” And Cecil, just as any good, Catholic, Chicago kid would, he answered, his parish, Sacred Heart. “BOOM!” Just like that. The kid took out a gun and shot him. Cecil’s chest lay open to the moonless sky. We didn’t know many details, we just heard that Joe didn’t know what to do. I mean stay with this friend or go run for help. There were no cell phones back then. And I just keep picturing Joe with Cecil, then running to get help and then like a film thrown into reverse, running back.  And then, “No, no! We should get help.” And running, just not knowing what to do.

I’d never been to the wake of a young person, a teenager, somebody my age. When we got to the funeral home, women with hats and powdery cheeks and older women smelling of perfume were milling about. And I was in grief before I even walked into that main room because I realized that Cecil had grown up much as I did. Leaned into the body of mothers and aunties and grandmas. The soft flesh of women’s arms wrapped around him, falling asleep in the heat of their bodies. And I knew with surety that the dividing line, that color line, in our city separated me not only from my black friends but from the familiness of my black friends. And then I saw, uh, Joe and as high as his face could lift and a smile was how far it fell. His skin hung loose over his jaw. “Thanks for coming,” he said. Still the master of ceremonies, we YCS kids, white, black and brown walked to the casket together.

We stared at Cecil’s body of brackish dust.  Part death, part Cecil, still. He looked like a jewel floating on the white, pleated linen below him. He looked so young, like a child. Way too young to be dead. I saw that dead people looked a lot like. White people may be a little more pasty, chalky, white. Black people may be more ashy gray. But both as far away as the deepest stone at the bottom of Lake Michigan.

The adults, they knew the manners of death. They held out holy cards to people. They, they prayed their Hail Marys and Our Fathers. But we kids were lucky, we were young, we didn’t have to say things like, “Oh, he looks good.” No, we just stood there silent…shattered. Maybe it was me, I don’t know, who broke first. I don’t know who fell on me and who I fell where my body began or where it ended. I just know the room melted away as we cradled each other in front of Cecil McClure’s casket.

It’s as if we just wanted to crawl into each other’s comfort. To hold each other as we felt the truth of it. Our friend is dead. Our friend dead. Our friend is dead. The truth beat against our hearts like a drum.

“Terence Hollands, Delvonta Porter, Devon Varner…” the reading,  the memorial reading of the names continues. Four thousand children shot, 263 children dead. The only response to a child’s grave is to lie down before it and play dead. The same youth performers came out into the sanctuary again. My same teen, my sentinel, at my side, appeared and she gestured for me to stand up. And all over the sanctuary, the teens were leading us outside for a profession, procession, a procession through our neighborhood to reclaim our streets. To put an end to violence.

A musician, one of the violinists, led that procession. Playing a song, now a refrain, we had heard often in the service, so everybody began to sing. “Pour out your heart like water for the lives of our children. Let justice roll like an ever-flowing stream.” We turned a corner and television cameras appeared. It felt like an obstruction, kind of obscene. You know, we’ve been in the quiet of the sanctuary, then the quiet of the night and then, boom, these bright white lights. Like a self-conscious kind of spectacle. But also, you know, lending a kind of layer extra layer of importance to the ritual. I mean we did want people to know. To know so that maybe we could believe that the denial was over. People were coming together because it was in our power to change things.

When their procession was over, I hugged my teen goodbye. I thanked her. And I went to walk to the parking lot to get my car but I thought, “No, I’ll go in the church and a look. I’ll just see.”  I went into the church and I found it. The sign-in book was still there. I found my name and I checked yes. Yes, I had lost a loved one to violence. Yes, I will work for peace. Have to commit to peace.  For all the children still living, growing and dreaming in every neighborhood across this nation.

Yes.

Take Me To Your Leader

 

Story Summary:

 Can you see antennas on this middle aged white woman? “Aliens” (the word used for people from other countries) come from places other than Mars. During the McCarthy witch-hunts (a period of anti-communism intensity), the Cold War and the Space Race, we all learned to “blend” our ethnic identities.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Take-Me-To-Your-Leader

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Why was Yvonne’s family able to legally become naturalized citizens while other people came to the U.S. as “illegals”?
  2. How old do you think Yvonne needed to be before she understood what it meant to become a U.S. citizen?

Resource:

  •  The Irish in America by Michael Coffey

Themes:

  •  Crossing Cultures
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Immigration
  • Living and Traveling Abroad

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name is Yvonne.  And I’m seven years old and the Pittsburgh Federal Building reaches right up to the sky, for real!  There are bars on the windows.  There may be daffodils blooming on the lawn but the entrance looms like a great, big mouth ready to swallow us up.  Awe…it looks an awful lot like the wicked fortress of the Wicked Witch of the West.  But…really… it’s the Pittsburgh Federal Building and this is the Steel City, not the Emerald City of Oz.

“Come on in.  Come along,” says Mummy.  “Let’s go.” So we go inside.  And we’re going inside the Federal Building.  Now, you see, I may be seven years old but I know what a federal building is.  We have a federal building in our own little town in Pennsylvania.  We go there, my dad and I, to mail packages back home to Ireland.  And our whole family goes there all together once a year for something special.  We go and we stand right up to the counter and then we hold our hands up, and out loud, we say the alien promise.  And then we sign our names.  Mine’s in block cursive.  And all the other people buying stamps, they’re staring at us because we’re aliens.  Well, that night we go home and watch TV and on the TV, there are the McCarthy Witch Trials.  And on that show, there are people who…who are getting yelled at and jailed because they’re aliens.

Well, I go to the mirror afterwards and I’m looking through my black hair for my antennae.  Because aliens have antenna.  I know that because I watch TV.  I watched Chiller Science Fiction Theater.  And aliens have antennae, Martians have antennae.  So I must have antennae.  The only time I see aliens is on TV because there are no other aliens in my town.  Everybody else is a real American.  But, you know, I don’t think antennae can come out.  They’re kind of stuck in there.  Because my… my teacher, Sister Camella, she likes to hit me on the head with the big, thick Geography book.  She does that whenever I accidentally use the language that we speak at home, Gaelic Irish.  She says, “Blend! Why don’t you blend?  Why don’t you speak like your friend, Star?  She’s a real American!  But you, you’re always going to be just alien!”  Star is a real American.  She speaks nicely.  And she has blonde hair and blue eyes.  And she doesn’t have to go down to the post office.  And she doesn’t cook funny food.  That’s what my friends say when they come over.

But anyway, so this is a special day!  (I don’t want to think about that.)  This is a special day.  This is the day I’m gonna be naturalized.  I didn’t know I wasn’t natural but now I know.  It’s going to be ok, ’cause today, I’m going to be naturalized.  So… I’ve been practicing my cursive.

And now Daddy and Mummy and my big sister and I are sitting in a bench right beside these big wooden doors.  One after another, our names are called in.  They go in separately because Daddy, Daddy thinks that… if Ireland declares war on the United States we’re gonna each need our own papers so we don’t get deported.  Tá mé na hÉireann agus tá mé Meiriceánach.  I’m Irish and I’m American.  Then they called my name.  And there are these black pants and a blue shirt and a yellow badge and a strange face.  And my mum pushes me.  “Go on, go on.”  I can’t believe that my mum is telling me to go with this stranger after she’s always going on about never going with strangers.  And now she’s making me go off into this big scary building with this scary man that I’ve never seen before! And he smells bad! We’re walking through those doors and we’re in a courtroom.  Only… only it’s not like the courtroom one on the TV show Perry Mason.  It’s got all the benches.  But this one’s dark and empty.  And my patent leather shoes are going, “whap, whap, whap,” as I go down the aisle following that stranger.  We get to the end, he gives me a little push.  And in front of me there’s this big, black tower of wood…I don’t want to go.  He says, “Go to the Judge’s Bench.”  …I don’t say it but I’m, like, that’s not a bench, that’s not a seat, that’s not a desk.  That’s a tower!  He gives me another push and I get a little further and I see there are little steps going up the side.  So, ok, I go up the steps.  And then it turns a corner and now I’m surrounded by black wood.  Heavy, thick, black wood.  I am all alone.  And the black wood just gets closer and closer and the air is getting squeezed out.  And I’m alone in this big black tower and then I hear, “Hey!”  And there’s a man, an old man’s face kind of poking out around the corner.  Is it the wizard?  Or the judge?   He motions to come closer.  So, he says, “Don’t worry.  Don’t worry.  I’m sure you remember the answers.”

And he says, “Who’s the president of the United States?”

I think to myself, “Oh my gosh, everybody knows that it’s the man with the shiny head.”  But I say, like a lady, I say, “General Eisenhower.”

And he says, “Who discovered America?”

And I say, “Christopher Columbus but it was named after the matchmaker, Amerigo Vespucci.”

And then he says, “Alright, this is a tricky one but you look like a smart little girl, how many states are there?”

“Forty-nine, Alaska just got in.”

“Congratulations,” he says.  “You are now an American citizen.  You may sign the book and repeat after me.”

And I hold my hand up like him, and just like you probably remember, I say, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America…”  I sign my name in big round cursive letters.  Now, I’m an American, a real American and I’m Irish too!

The Restaurant Story: A French American Becomes More Visible

 

Story Summary:

As Franco-Americans from Quebec assimilated into the larger Anglo culture in the United States, they became, as a result of that effort, more “invisible.” The story that Michael tells, as Jean-Paul Boisvert, shows a couple’s resistance to that “invisibility.”

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  The-Restaurant-Story-A-French-American-Becomes-More-Visible

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you know when “your people” came to the United States? If you do not, is it because, in their effort to assimilate, they also became “invisible”?
  2. Were “your people” able to assimilate successfully? Or did they accommodate to the Anglo culture to the point where they became “invisible”?
  3. Did your grandparents or parents ever speak a language other than English? Were they able to learn English and also continue to speak their “native” language even if it was a dialect of the language rather than the “standard” version?
  4. Have you ever had to “bite your tongue” to fit in, or assimilate into a culture? Do you think it was wise of the narrator of the story not to “bite his tongue” and speak up?

Resources:

  • The Franco-Americans of Lewiston-Auburn by Mary Rice-DeFosse and James Myall, The History Press, Charleston, S.C. 2015.  (A lively exploration of the challenges of the French-speaking immigrants from Canada who came to work in the textile industry.)
  • The First Franco-Americans by C. Stewart Doty, The University of Maine Press, Orono, ME 1985. (Well edited New England Life Histories from the Federal Writers’ Project.)

Themes:

  •  Crossing Cultures
  • European American/Whites
  • Identity
  • Languages
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name is Michael Parent. A few weeks ago, I was in residence at one of the elementary schools in my hometown of Lewiston, Maine. And I couldn’t help but notice that the kids there was so visible and so audible. Many of them are African immigrants from Somalia, from Sudan, from Cote d’Ivoire, and they were visible. The girls in their colorful clothing. The boys and girls, both of them, both the boys and girls, had wonderful speech. They were all dark skinned so they really stood out. They were visible and audible. And it led me to think that my own people, the Franco-Americans, who came down from Quebec a few generations ago, had become invisible and inaudible.

So, I started thinking about this, when they arrived from Quebec mostly, to work in the textile mills of New England, they were visible and audible. Well, they had Catholic religion. They had their French accents and their French language. They loved to get together in family gatherings. They loved loud singing and dancing, music, loud conversation in large groups. Now, my grandparents and my great grandparents were part of this immigration of about 1.5 million French Canadians who mostly came to try to find work in the textile mills of New England. Many of these people thought they would come down work for a few years and return to Quebec to revive their sagging farms. Well, most did not return. And the people who stayed, banded together in their own neighborhoods called, Peu Kanata, Little Canada. And in those neighborhoods, they tried to preserve their language and their traditions. And this slowed their assimilation into the larger, predominant, Anglo culture for quite a long time.

French was the language most spoken. When they went to church, the masses were said in Latin and French. When they sent their children to schools, I was one of those children, we had school half in French and half English. Well, on Sundays, we went for family gatherings and French was the language that was mostly spoken, then. We never, ever addressed my grandparents, my Mémé and Pépé, or our aunts and uncles, my tante and my oncle, we never addressed them in English. It was considered really impolite to do so.

My father, Gerard Parent represented the voice that said, “Deux langues sont deux fois,” which meant, Two languages is twice as good. But the prevailing majority voice was, “Le boss ne parle français,” the boss does not speak French. So, these people had to assimilate in order to survive in an Anglo culture. Some people changed their names to do so. Cluse became Clukey and Boisvert became Greenwood and so on. Now the older generation seems to be saying to the younger generations, “Listen we’ll never belong here in the United States but we will do anything that we can so that someday you will belong.” So, in order to assimilate into the Anglo culture many of these immigrants steered their children away from their heritage language. With the assimilation came a loss of language and culture. And with this loss of language and culture came invisibility. The story I’d like to tell you now is a, an excerpt from a larger story called, One More Thing. And it’s being told by Jean-Paul Bavare, who was an immigrant, who is retired from the textile mills and he’s going to tell about an incident that took place in his and his wife’s life.

Oh, yeah. Irene. She was my oldest daughter you know. Still is. I had five kids. Irene, I was so proud of her. That kid. But she always reminded me I never went to her college graduation. Hmm. I just didn’t feel comfortable with those college people. Hmm. Irene, she was mad she didn’t understand that at all. And oh, yeah, yeah. She liked to remind me how I was a big sour puss at her wedding. Well, it’s true I couldn’t wait to get outta there. Malcolm, my son-in-law, he was what I called, an Episcopagen.  But anyway, his people, all they talked about was their stocks and bonds, and their country clubs, and all the rest of that. Oh, gee, I couldn’t wait to get outta there. Irene, she was mad about that.

But here’s what I’m talking about. See, my wife felt the same way about all these things. We never hardly went out. My wife, she liked to stay home. She liked to have company come to her. So, one time, I had this boss, his name was Bill Lawler, Bill Lawler. Bill was a good guy, you know. He was one of my first bosses at the mill and he treated us workers fair and square. Well, he heard my wife was a good cook, you know. So, I invited him and his wife, Mildred, over for supper one time. And they kept coming maybe once or twice a year, but, you know, we never went to their house. Marie Louise, my wife, she did not like to go, you know, to other people’s houses. She liked to have company come to her, you know. She’d like to be with her own people mostly. Anyway. So, one time at one of our anniversaries I managed to convince Marie Louise to go out for supper. And we went to Chez Robert, oh boy. When we get to the restaurant, who do we see sitting there? But Bill Lawler and Mildred and a couple of their friends. Well, we go over there, we chit chat a little bit, you know, and Bill, he’s a nice guy, so he invites us to join them. Well, I didn’t know how to wiggle out of it, you know. So, we sat down. Well, these friends of the Lawlers, this other couple, they start talking about how they just adore speaking French. And they start blabbing away in their a high-class, college French about their trips to Paris. The wife of the other couple, she asked Marie Louise if we ever went to Paris. Marie-Louise says, “No. No, we usually go on vacations up to Quebec to visit some of our relatives. Well, the husband of the couple, he pipes in, and he says, “They would like to go to Quebec but they didn’t think they would understand such a strange accent.”

So, I said, “Hey, listen. Come on. There’s all kinds, different ways to talk French. Just like there’s all kinds, different ways to talk English.”

And he thinks about this for two, three seconds and he says, “But isn’t Quebec, was a peasant French?”

Oooooh! I could have bit my tongue, you know. Here was my boss. These are his friends and we were always taught to bite our tongues. I suppose in case they sent us back to Canada, I guess, I don’t know. But no, instead I said, “What’s wrong with that? If it wasn’t for us peasants, you aristocrats wouldn’t have a thing to eat.” It got very quiet that all the food finally came, thank goodness. And we started eating.

After a little while the wife of the other couple, looking down her nose at Marie Louise says, “Mrs. Bavare, do you make your own dresses?” Marie Louise takes her napkin and she folds it up. She puts it on the table.

She looks at me and she says, “Laisse nous partir!” Let’s go right now. And she stands up. And she looks at that woman right in the eye and she says, “Yes, I do make my own dresses. Thank you so much for asking. But now we have to leave because I have suddenly developed a big pain in my neck.” And she walks out of there like a queen.

I was so proud of her! But I never told.

A Yiddish King Lear

 

Story Summary:

 A Yiddish King Lear is about hard choices, hopes, dreams, racial persecution, and love! It tells of the moment Judith realized that her grandfather, Oscar Markowitz, an actor in the Yiddish Theatre at the turn of the 20th Century was her role model as a Storyteller. Remembering her grandfather’s background, gave her the courage to pursue her dreams. A Yiddish King Lear is set in the emotional, artistic and actual geographic crossroad of Second Avenue in New York City in the early 1900’s and in the 1970’s.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: A-Yiddish-King-Lear

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Who in your family is an unsung hero or heroine? 
How has this person influenced your life and/or helped you make important decisions? What might you like to learn more about this person?
  2. If you have ever moved, gone to a new school, relocated to a new country or community, what have you brought with you? Why are these things important? These things can be memories, values, traditions – intangibles. A few special objects are often passed down from one generation to another and are cherished.
Does your family have any of these items? If so, tell their stories! 
You can also discuss what you left behind and how that affects you.
  3. Describe a time when you have either experienced feeling like “the other” or perhaps excluded others. What prompted these situations?

Resources:

Themes:

  •  Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Jewish Americans/Jews

Full Transcript:

Hi, I’m Judith Heineman. Did you ever want something so badly that you were willing to give up everything for it? This is an excerpt of a longer piece about my grandfather called, “A Yiddish King Lear.”

When I was eight, I played Snow White and the prince refused to kiss me. I lay there waiting, my heart palpitating, “Psst. Kenny you’re supposed to kiss me, now.” I lay there on a hard, narrow, wooden bench taken from the seating area in the social hall. “Psst, Kenny, now.”

Well, I may not have known what the word “improvised” meant, but I arose from my poisoned slumber and I chased Kenny Eppstein, the cutest 9-year-old in camp, around the wishing well. My Prince Charming was not escaping without a kiss and he kissed me on the cheek. This Snow White took place in a summer bungalow colony, in the Catskills, in New York. And my grandfather, Oscar Markowitz, who was about 75 at the time, was taking care of me. My mother worked in the city and came up on weekends. We lived in the first bungalow, a tiny unwinterized, rented cabin. And we came home for lunch. And after rehearsal, I was so excited that I ran into the house and I said, “Grandpa, Grandpa, when I grow up, I am going to be an actress.”

He turned from the stove with a blackened frying pan in one hand, a dish rag in the other. And he just looked at me, with the strangest look. He didn’t say anything. And then he turned back to burning my lunch.

That weekend my mother came up to see me as Snow White. And I said, “Mom, when I grow up I’m going to be an actress.”

“What do you want to be an actress for? You’ll never make any money as an actress. Forget this narish, this foolishness, and do something practical. Be a teacher.”

Something must have penetrated because I did become a teacher. I became a high school English and journalism teacher in New York City. And I was teaching near the East Village, in the West Village. The heyday of the off, and off, off Broadway movement. So, I would teach during the day, and I would audition after work. And I would perform in strange places, in storefronts, and black boxes, and sub-sub-basements. And so, I would perform and I would think, “Why am I doing this? This is so difficult. Why am I hitting my head against the wall? I have no role models. There’s nobody in my family who is an actor. What’s possessing me like a dybbuk or a demon or something, where I have to do this?”

And there I was on Second Avenue, New York City, going into a sub-sub-basement of an experimental theater, and my foot froze on the stair. How could I have forgotten? How could I have forgotten? And his voice came flooding back to me. My grandfather, Oscar Markowitz, he of the burning lunches, wasn’t always Oscar Markowitz. He was Oschar Marko, an actor in the Yiddish theater from Romania. And he wasn’t just any actor, he was a very good actor. He had to have been a good actor because he was sponsored by the Rothschild banking family, the banking family that dominated all the capitals of Europe in the 19th century. The Rothschilds were sponsoring Jewish actors to escape from Romania, to travel across Europe, and come to the United States. And it wasn’t just an international tour. No. They were helping them to escape the religious persecution, the poverty, and the bloody pogroms that were plaguing Eastern Europe and Romania at that time, at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, a bloody pogrom, a government sanctioned race riot against Jews.

What kind of future did he have? And in 1893, when he was 12 years old, laws were passed that said no Jewish child can have a public education anymore. And then, as if overnight, new laws were passed, that if you didn’t have government rights, and Jews didn’t, the men couldn’t pursue careers. And 40 percent of them lost their jobs. But even still, how could he possibly leave everything that he had known, his family and his country for an uncertain future? But he was an actor and he came to the United States and finally found his way down, down, downtown to Second Avenue, New York City, the home of the Yiddish theater.

And his voice came flooding back to me singing in a language that I didn’t understand. And he said he was singing King Lear in Yiddish. Now, you have to understand, this was not Shakespeare’s King Lear. This was a Goldfadden King Lear. This was a guilty King Lear. This was a suffering King Lear. This was a Jewish King Lear. And when immigrants came to the theater, they didn’t sit back to just be entertained. Oh no. The theater was a temple of learning, this was education. They would grab their children and they’d say, “See, see that man suffering on stage? That’s what you’re doing to us, you ungrateful first generation American children. Can’t you respect us? Respect the old ways? Respect our traditions?”

And there, on the Lower East Side, he met a landsman, a neighbor, a friend. Her name was Dora. And they fell in love and he asked her to marry him. And she went to her father and said, “Papa, Papa, this is Oschar Marko and he’s asked me to marry him. He’s an actor. A very good actor. An actor in the Yiddish theater.”

And curses in Yiddish spewed forth from her father’s mouse, mouth and he said, “An actor! No daughter of mine is going to marry an actor! An actor is a gun of a thief a no-goodnik! The lowest of the low! The devil!”  “And you,” he said to my grandfather, “if you want to marry my daughter, you have to get a respectable profession!”

What could he do? How could he choose between his acting that had saved his life and the woman he loved? That would be the only family he would know in this new world. Would King Lear have to be silenced? And he chose. And he became a respectable and often unemployed house painter. Adorning other people’s dreams while designs for his own lay tattered in a Sienna portfolio, a still life unframed with forged signatures. And he was bitter and frustrated for the rest of his life except…when he would sing to me in a language I didn’t understand. And I would sit by his knee and he would hold court in his third floor, rent controlled, Bronx apartment. And I would sit at his knee. And his chest would rise and he would sit on his throne, a gray brocaded armchair with fringes along the bottom, and his chest would rise, his hands would rail to the ceiling, still steady in his 90’s. And he would become a young man of 19 again in the year 1900. The dawn of a new century with all the promise of anything he could have imagined before him. And he would sing all the frustration and pain and sorrow of King Lear. And, although, I did not know what each word meant individually, his song still sings inside me in mame loshn, a mother tongue, and needs no translation.

Another Way West

 

Story Summary:

 At age 16, in 1855, Jane’s great-grandfather sailed from Long Island, N.Y. around the Horn to San Francisco where he was stranded! He took a job with Wells Fargo as a treasure agent in the Sacramento-Shasta Mining District…the home of the Shasta Indian Nation. In 1860 he rode the first leg east for the Pony Express. He was also a member of San Francisco’s Vigilance Committee, a group of 6000 men, committed to establishing “law and order.” How do we seek understanding of both the pride and the discomfort our ancestor’s stories?

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Another-Way-West

Discussion Questions:

  1. How did the varieties of available transportation and the movement of people in the mid-1800s contribute to the ‘opening of the West’? Martin Luther King said, “The arc of moral history is long, but it bends toward justice.” How does that quote fit with the opening of the West? How has social media changed the way we learn about how people are being oppressed today?
  2. If you were to create tableaux or pictures from this story, how might you picture the Shasta Nation? the miners? the Vigilance Committee? the U.S. Army? the Pony Express?  How might you depict each group’s point of view and predicament?
  3. Because Brinck is a member of Jane’s family, when she tells this story to her grandchildren, what should she tell them?  Why?

Resources:

  •  A biography of Jane’s Great Grandfather: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elbert_Adrian_Brinckerhoff
  • wc.rootsweb.ancestry.com
  • Website – About the Shasta Nation Territory: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shasta-Trinty_National_Forest and www.fs.usda.gov/stnf

Themes:

  • Crossing Cultures
  • European American/Whites
  • First Nations/Native Americans
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • War

Full Transcript:

Hello, I’m Jane Stenson. I’d like to tell you an excerpt from a story, “Another Way West.” It’s a story about my great-grandfather. His name, his long name was Elbert Adrian Brinkerhoff. Everybody called him Brink. He was really short. He was a very slight kid but really short. I mean, he was probably about my height, about 5’2” or 5’3”. And he loved horses. Well, actually, what he liked to do, was to race horses. He lived for school to be over at the end of the day. And then he would jump on his horse, he would race out to the general store, pick up the family’s mail, and race home.

In 1855, he graduated from a school where his father was Headmaster and he was all set to go to college. But what happened was that a letter came. And following that letter, came the author of the letter, a Captain Joseph Hamilton. And he is, his clipper ship was in New York Harbor but he was a war friend of Brink’s father. So, they invited him out to Long Island, to their house. And he began to talk about the clipper ship, about how beautiful it was, about the white sails on the ship, and how fast it was. It went faster than anything else that was out there. And about how much money you could make in the around the world cargo trade. So, the more he talked, the more interested Brink became. And when Captain Hamilton invited Brink to go along with him on this around the world cargo trade, and that he would teach bring all about how to make money in the cargo trade, it was very easy for Bring to defer college and decide to go around the world.

So, they left New York Harbor. They went south, ah, east, southeast all the way down and around the big bump in South America, and all the way down and around under Cape Horn, all the way up the west side of South America, Central America, up to San Francisco. And in San Francisco, when they offloaded all that cargo, Brink found out it was just ordinary things. Things, which in 1855, would be important to the people that were settling out there. Eggs, whiskey, cotton cloth. And things that were important to the miners like picks and shovels and boots. Soon as the cargo was offloaded, Captain Hamilton, now this was unexpected, but Captain Hamilton got a cargo all the way back to New York. Brink didn’t get to go around the world. In fact, he was stranded in San Francisco.

Well, he had skills; horses, he was educated, for the time, and he was amili… amiable. He was a good kid. So, he went, with his letter of introduction, to Wells Fargo and he got himself a job. He was a Treasury Agent. And it was a perfect job for him because it was all about riding his horse through his territory, which was San Francisco up to Sacramento, and then out beyond Sacramento into the Shasta mining district.

Well, he delivered the mail. Yeah. So, he put on his slouch hat and his bright, red shirt and he’d jump on his horse and he’d whack and he’d bang on the door of a claim. And somebody inside the claim of the gold mine would know that there was a letter. And then, in those days, if he was delivering the mail, it was the recipient of the letter who paid the bill. So, they would offer not cash because those miners didn’t have a lot of cash. What they had were vials of gold. He might get half an ounce of gold for delivering one letter. That’s probably about $300 in today’s, today’s money. Or, or he delivered newspapers that were five or six months old. And the miners will pay anywhere from 8 to $150 for those letters.

And then a letter would be there. Somebody would climb up the ladder from inside the claim and they would pay the pony man. Brink would hand over the letter and then he jumped back on his horse, three blasts on his horn, and a way he was down the trail, down the creek bed, wherever he was to go on to the next house. He liked that job.

And in fact, as Treasury Agent, he got to know where everything was. Where people lived in that, in that whole area between San Francisco and Sacramento and up into the Shasta area. He got to know which claims were mining gold, which claims were beginning to dry up and he got to know about the Shasta Indians. Where they lived, how they were moving, if they were moving, what they were doing, and that was part of his job. Part of his job was to keep track of those things for Wells Fargo.

Well, this was 1855, 1856 when he had this job. And when the Gold Rush had started in 1849, miners began to pour into California followed by the settlers. And those miners’ white tents sprang up all over the Shasta district, like some sort of non-native invasive species. And the miners, they were interested in the gold. They panned for the gold. They found gold inside of caves and they gouged inside the caves. And the fish went belly up and the land that the… the game on the land went scarce. Well, that was the Shasta Indians way of life. That was their food. And the Shasta Indians began to realize with more and more people coming in, that they were losing not just their food source, they were losing their entire way of life.

In, in 1849, as the gold rush started, there were 290 people in Sacramento. And just in 1856, when Brink got this job, there were 400,000 people in Sacramento. Four hundred thousand people interested in becoming rich. Rich with gold. Rich with owning land. And the Indian began to understand that he was losing. He was losing again and again. Some of the Indians began to raid. Some of the Indians began to massacre. There were problems. And the government, which was represented by the U.S. Army at that time, decided that they needed to protect the Indian. And that the Indian needed to be moved out of the Shasta District and on to a reservation.

They hired Treasury Agents to do that job. Brink was a member of the Vigilance Committee in San Francisco. That was a group of men, six thousand strong, who were committed to law and order in California. And that’s what they wanted to do. So, he took that job, that extra job, extra work for him, because he knew where the Shasta Indians were. He gathered them. He collected them. And he marched them to Nomlaki, which was a piece of land where nobody wanted to settle. It was poor. Nothing grew there. It was bad land. But he marched those Indians, with friends, with other people, to that military reservation that was quickly and poorly constructed. I don’t know how he felt about what he did because in his journal he simply documented that he had participated in that…march.

I do know that he liked his job as a Treasury Agent because he wrote about it. And he wrote about the people that he met and he, and how he likes delivering the mail and keeping track of all the things that were going on. He wrote about how beautiful the land was in the Shasta nation. About the hunting and the fishing that he did on his days off. But about his participation for the few days of the, the Indian march to Nomlaki, he simply documented that he had participated in that.

Well, I have to tell you that he went back to his regular job after that. And he was honored by Wells Fargo for the good job that he did as a Treasury Agent. They asked him if he would be interested in riding the first leg of the Pony Express East. Well, he said yes. And so, he carried, in 1860, he carried his mail pouch of 56 letters from San Francisco up to Sacramento, and then he handed the mail pouch off to the Overland rider, who would take all those letters to um, to the east coast. At that time, the people who wrote the letters were the ones who paid $5 for each letter going east.

Well, I have to say, in thinking about my great-grandfather Brink, the family stories that have come down to us, are all about his participation in the Pony Express and what an adventure it was and how romantic it was. And how great it was that he got to do that and I believe that.

Do we talk about his role as a member of the Vigilance Committee and his role in dislocating the Indians from their, from their nation, from their land? No. I had to look that information up. It was not information that was handed down in the family stories. Now, at the time that he did that, he was 18 years old. And he was probably not as wise then as he became later on in his life. That he moved 300 people from their land to a reservation is not praiseworthy by any standard. Yet it’s part of a lot of white family histories in this country.

Dr. Martin Luther King said that, “The arc of moral history is long. But that it bends toward truth.”

I believe…I hope that that is true.

Brush the Dirt from My Heart

 

Story Summary:

 Storyteller, Connie Regan-Blake, was invited to come to Uganda by “Bead For Life”(www.beadforlife.org), an NGO helping women lift themselves out of extreme poverty. Many of them are displaced people from the horrors and atrocities of civil war in northern Uganda and are dealing with the ravages of AIDS. Connie was welcomed into their homes and hearts as if she was family and she listened to their profound and transformative stories. This is Namakasa Rose’s story.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  Brush-the-Dirt-From-My-Heart

Discussion Questions:

  1. How do you distinguish between what is helpful and what is patronizing to another culture?
  2. When she was at her most desperate what kept Namakasa Rose alive and providing for her children?
  3. Poverty and social justice issues seem to go hand-in-hand; one of the social issues is health care, specifically about the AIDS epidemic in Africa. How did being diagnosed with AIDS actually become a turning point in Rose’s health and her ability to support her family? What kind of support needs to be present for people to live full lives with AIDS?

Resource:

Themes:

  •  African American/Black History
  • Crossing Cultures
  • European American/Whites
  • Living and Traveling Abroad
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

Hi, I’m Connie Regan-Blake and this is a story that lives in a larger story called Hope is Back on Me.

It was February 2007 and I had landed in Uganda, East Africa. I was walking down the steps of the airplane and the air, it was light and tropical. There were flowers blooming bougainvillea, orchids. And a little yellow bird flew by me and I thought, “I am in paradise.”

But I was to find that Uganda can be a hard place to live and to visit. I’d been invited over by two friends. Charles, he’s a doctor and he had been invited to come to work with African doctors on AIDS. Charles concentrated on that; he had done research.

His wife Torkin went with him with his wonderful attitude of “how can I be of service?” She was walking down a dirt path one day and she saw a woman, a Ugandan woman, sitting beside the path making jewelry. Torkin stopped to watch and she saw Meli Grace cut out long strips of paper, recycled paper from magazines. She was rolling up the paper, putting a dot of glue on it and then dropping that bead into a basket. And after she had a whole lot of those beads, Torkin found out that she would string them up, dip them in shellac, hang them to dry. And then, eventually, after two more dips and the shellac, she would make this beautiful jewelry.

Well, Torkin bought four necklaces. The next day she was going to visit a director of an orphanage and she put on one of the necklaces. When she got to the meeting, the woman went wild over that necklace so Torkin took it off and gave it to her.

Well, the next day, that happened again. And the third day, it happened again. And Torkin thought, ah, a kernel of an idea. And along with two other people, Ginny and Devin, that kernel grew into a nonprofit called Bead for Life. Women all over North America are giving big parties. Women helping women, giving that hand so that the Ugandan women can lift themselves up out of poverty.

Well, Torkin had invited me over to interview some of the women. My first morning there, I was sitting on the porch at the Bead for Life offices waiting to interview Namakasa Rose. Torkin had told me a little bit about Rose. How she had had a very rough life; her husband had been killed in an accident. And Rose was, with four young children, living in a slum, at the bottom of a hill. During the rainy season, the water would pour in and, sometimes, cover the whole dirt floor. Mud walls with a few pieces of thin plywood. And nothing inside, except for a pot and a mat that Rose would roll out at night for the children to sleep on.

Well, the gate opened and in walked Namakasa Rose. I could hardly believe it was the same woman. She was radiant, smiling. We slipped over to a shady spot and I asked Rose about the hard times. She said her life was very rough.

That once she had found a coin on the dirt path and after that she made it her job. Every morning she would get up before five o’clock, leave those four babies sleeping, and she would go out looking for a coin. Always her head down, usually to the bars first. And if she found a coin, it meant that that day she could get a few tablespoons of oil in a little plastic bag, some corn meal, and if the children could find a piece of used charcoal, it meant they would have something to eat that day.

Rose said she was very sick during this time; she had sores all over her body. Sometimes she would send the children out to the dustbins looking for food but not much is thrown away in Uganda. Rose said that she thought it had been a mistake to have those children. That she wanted to put them back inside her. She also thought about poisoning them and herself to take them all out of this misery. And then, one day, she heard that if you got tested for AIDS, you would get food for a day.

Well, that’s when she met Dr. Charles. And Rose, she found out that she had full blown AIDS. She was sent home with medicine, food to take the medicine and a clock to know when to take the medicine. Now for many, hearing that news, it might be one of the worst days of our lives.

But for Rose, it was a day that things started changing. Rose found… uh, it was maybe two days later, Torkin came to visit Rose and taught her how to roll the beads. Rose could roll them as she was lying in bed recovering. And she found that you can really lead a full life with the right medication. Now all of Rose’s children are in school. She told me that hers was a good life and she was the first woman, the first beader that I met in Uganda. And she was the last that I saw the night before I was to fly out. She came to visit me and she said, “Connie, I want to thank you for not sitting on your soft chair in America.”

And she gave me a gift, a little doll made out of raffia. And she said, “Connie, I used to be like this, all scrunched up. But now I’m like this. My basket, it is full.” And Rose said, Bead for Life has brushed the dirt from my heart.

I Wanted To Be an Indian

 

Story Summary:

 Stories about our ancestors help us understand who we are. Encountering troubling revelations about her forebears and their Indian neighbors in colonial New England, Jo asks what it means to tell – and live with – her whole, complex history.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: I-Wanted-to-be-an-Indian

Discussion Questions:

  1. People say that in history, the winners get to tell the stories. How do we look beyond the winners’ points of view to understand the past?
  2. What are the legacies of the early conflicts between Native Americans and Europeans?
  3. Is the Abenaki story of the Kcinu a viable model for bridging cultures? In practical terms, how might we treat “the other” as family?
  4. How might white Americans think about redressing past wrongs and responding to the contemporary situation of First Nations?

Resources:

  • New England’s Generation: The Great Migration and the Formation of Society and Culture in the Seventeenth Century by Virginia DeJohn Anderson
  • White Devil: A True Story of War, Savagery, and Vengeance in Colonial America by Stephen Brumwell
  • “Reading Abenaki Traditions and European Records of Rogers’ Raid,” by Marge Brucha Download from http://www.vermontfolklifecenter.org/childrens-books/malians-song/additional_resources/rogers_raid_facts.pdf
  • Distant Relations: How My Ancestors Colonized North America by Victoria Freeman
  • Journals of Major Robert Rogers (1769) repr. in The Annotated and Illustrated Journals of Major Robert Rogers, ed. Timothy J. Todish and Gary Zaboly. Fleischmanns, NY: Purple Mt. Press Ltd., 2002.
  • www.nedoba.org (information concerning Wabanaki People of interior New England)

Themes:

  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • First Nations/Native Americans
  • Identity
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name is Jo Radner and this is an excerpt from a long story called “Braving the Middle Ground.” When I was a child, I wanted to be an Indian. I practiced being silent in the woods of western Maine.

I knew there’d been Indians there ’cause my Uncle Bob found arrowheads in his cow pasture but somehow they had disappeared. And now we were there. My grandmother told me that my English ancestors had founded several towns in Massachusetts and New Hampshire and Maine. I was proud. I thought we’d been here since 1635. But then when I studied history, I realized what it meant to found all those towns. My ancestors had been among the first people to take the Indians’ land, to cut down the forests, to fence the fields, to feel entitled to destroy the way of life of native people.

And then when they studied my own family history later on, I found more things I didn’t want to know. Some of my ancestors had been members of Rogers’ Rangers, the special forces of the 18th century British army trained to use Indian woodcraft against the Indians. Indian killers! I’d heard about their famous 1759 raid on the Abenaki mission village of St. Francis in Quebec.

The heroic story! A select troop slogged 150 miles through untracked wilderness. Nine days wading in icy waters in a spruce bog to carry off a dawn raid that destroyed the village of St. Francis, from which the French and Indians had launched so many raids on New England.

And then my Abenaki friends told me the not so heroic stories. Most of the people that Rogers’ Rangers killed in St. Francis were women and children. One ranger was walking past an Indian baby lying on the ground. Major Rogers told him to kill it. “I can’t!” he said.

And Rogers snarled, “Next will be lice!” and crushed the child’s head! My ancestors were Rogers’ Rangers. I was relieved when I discovered that my most direct Ranger ancestors John and Stephen Farrington had been too young to go on that raid. The story of John Farrington, my great-great-great-grand uncle haunts me.

When he was a 10 year old boy, tall and strong working in a field, a party of Abenakis burst out of the woods, captured him and carried him off quickly toward Canada. When they stopped on the way, they dressed John in Abenaki clothing. They painted his body and then to finish the ritual, one of the young Indians took a finger full of red paint and told John to stick out his tongue so he could paint a stripe on it.

John obeyed. But when the Indian put his finger in his mouth, John bit it and he wouldn’t let go. And the Abenakis were startled and then they burst out laughing. They said, “He’ll be a good Indian!”

And they took him to St. Francis. He was adopted by an Indian family. They treated him kindly; he grew up playing games and hunting with the Indian boys.

He lived for eight years as an Abenaki. In that time, he married a daughter of a chieftain. I don’t know anything about his wife. I know nothing about children. But I do know that he wanted to leave; he tried twice! The first time, his own wife apprehended him as he was walking out of the village dressed as an Indian woman selling baskets.

The second time he was in Quebec City (which had fallen to the English) serving as interpreter to a party of Abernakis. And then he jumped into the middle of a troop of English soldiers and said he wanted to go back to New England. They argued; a merchant ransomed him. He stayed for eight months in Quebec working off his ransom. Went back to New Hampshire and joined the Rangers. He never fully lost contact. Family memoirs say that for the years, Abenakis from St. Francis came to visit him in New England. But he changed from Indian husband to Indian fighter. And I think that it was because of the stories that he heard when he was a young child in his own English family.

You know, it’s all in who gets to tell the stories and what stories they choose to tell. John’s ancestors had been treated kindly by Indians but his family didn’t tell those stories. The stories he heard were about how savages had murdered his great grandfather, had abducted his great aunt, had slaughtered four of her first six children. And when he was a toddler, his mother had held him up to see the massacred bodies of his uncle’s! A family memoir says, “It would seem only natural that in later years, John became a terror to the Indians far and near.” Only natural?

There is an Abernaki legend about a cannibal monster with an icy heart who comes to devour a small family but the mother of the family welcomes him as if he is her father. She washes him and dresses him. She and her husband tell him family stories. They treat him like a beloved relative and the monster sits surly for three days.

And then… he drinks a kettle of boiling grease. It melts his icy heart. It purges all the evil he’s done and after that, he lives with the family and takes care of them. I wish my family had been able to live kindly and peaceably. I wish history had taken a different turn. John Farrington was an Indian fighter all his life. But in some sense he was still an Abenaki. His son Samuel wrote that in his last years, John’s early Indian life came back to him and he would take his blanket out into the woods without shelter and lie quietly for the night.

Do I still want to be an Indian? No. I want to learn to live well with my whole history, to recognize the monstrosities and the kindnesses that lie behind me. To make family of all kinds, to melt my own icy heart!

Passing for WASP

 

Story Summary:

 Carol believes this statement: “To build a bridge from one culture into another and make pluralism a cause for celebration, we have to have one foot firmly planted in who we are.” However, in exploring her Polish and Scottish roots, Carol wonders if she’s really been living what she teaches.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Passing-for-WASP

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is a WASP and why is that word part of American history?
  2. Why are many students who are identified as “white” unaware of their ethnic heritages? It seems from the story that there is a hierarchy of “whiteness;” is this accurate in your experience?
  3. The storyteller accepted many last names in the story – her original name, her father’s name-switch, her husband’s name. Finally, she went back to what name and why? Why is so much consideration given to a name?

Resources:

Themes:

  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Identity
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

Hi, there. I’m Carol Birch. And you know I think I must’ve been 27, 28 years old before a woman said to me, “I have no idea why people are ashamed of being Polish. It’s such a rich culture.” And I didn’t know that I was ashamed of being Polish but I certainly never claimed that I was Polish. I never advertised that I was Polish.

My father was born in 1905. His name was Edmond Paul Buczkowski, B-U-C-Z-K-O-W-S-K-I. And when he went out as a young man to look for work, the only thing he found were signs in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania that said, “Polish need not apply.” So, he changed our name. He changed it from Buczkowski to Birch.

What’s Birch? So interesting because, you know, my mother… If you met my mother, and you told her your name, after she said, “Oh, hi, Carol Birch. Birch, what kind of name is that? My mother always asked that. Mm, Pittsburgh’s a very ethnic city.”

Well, my father, I thought, you know what, it was just like a WASP name. Nobody really knows what Birch is. And I never really thought about it.

Now my brother Bob was born in 1938. He went to Arsenal Elementary School, right in the inner city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. And he was sitting in class one day. It must have been like second or third grade. He was young and the teacher was going around, “What nationality are you? What nationality are you?”

Well, he was sitting beside his best friend. Mm, his best friend was Manny. Manny had come from Greece so Manny said, “I’m Greek.”

“Robert, what are you?”

“I’m American.”

“No, you’re not!” She pounced on him; she sneered. He remembered feeling very attacked by her.

“You. What are you, an Indian? Uh, ha! If you don’t tell us what you are tomorrow after you’ve gone home to see your family, you’re gonna go to the principal’s office.”

So, my little big brother came home and asked Daddy, “Who are we? What are we?” I wasn’t born yet so this is all hearsay. You know, it’s all a story.

And my father said to my brother, “You’re an American. If you tell that teacher you are anything but an American, when you come home, you’re going to get a beating.” This is not a child abuse story.

Anyway, um, my brother, rightly, I think, chose to oppose this teacher, not our father. And when he went to school and he didn’t say that he was anything but an American, the teacher was so offended by his defiance, she sent him to the principal’s office. (Now I wish I knew this principal’s name and I am going to find it out again because he was a wonderful man. All my first attempts have failed.) When my brother went into the principal’s office, my father was already there and the principal said, “Bob, you go back to class. Don’t you worry. I’monna take care of your dad. And I’m gonna take care of your teacher.”

Well, I went to Arsenal Elementary School. I didn’t have that teacher. Didn’t have anybody who asked me what nationality I was but I was there in 1954. In fact, I was there when Salk had the first polio vaccine. That was my class. I was standing there on that day in February 1954. But that’s another story.

Anyway, um, my life changed. I went to Arsenal Elementary School. But when I was in the fifth grade, we moved from the inner city to the suburbs.

Now it seems to me that the Irish and the Italians and the Polish were always jockeying for position, some idea of hierarchy, who was closest to being a WASP. I really don’t think any of my friends would have been my friends in middle school or high school if my name had been Carol Buczkowski. I never heard anyone say anything slanderous against those whose names ended in S-K-I but my friends were Nancy Davis, Sharon Nixon, Susie McGregor, Christine Larson. Huh! Now, I went to college. I got married. The man I married first, ha, ha, ha, was a man whose last name was Norwegian.

I always felt like Carol Birch sorta sounded like clip clop, just such a nn… bitey sort of name. And now my name was Carol Nermo. Huh! I thought that was so wonderful. You know, there’s no stigma in being Norwegian and, and aren’t all Norwegians beautiful and tall and clean and good. And now maybe was I all those things, suddenly tall, suddenly beautiful, suddenly good.

And when that marriage ended in a divorce, who was I? I wasn’t Miss Nermo. I wasn’t Professor Nermo so I put my family through all kinds of misery. I was gonna change my name for a short time to legally just Carol ’cause you have to have two names to own property and I hoped someday I’d have property. And then I said to my mother, “You know what? I’m a storyteller and, oh, Mother, ethnics in. I’m gonna go back to being Carol Buczkowski.”

And my mother said, “You’ll kill your father.” My mother was Scotch Presbyterian. My mother and my father had what was then known as a mixed marriage. I don’t think it would have killed Daddy and here’s why.

I divorced in 1975. Not long after that, my father who left school in the fourth-grade ’cause he punched a nun and climbed out the window. My father didn’t have a formal education but he was smart and he read a lot. And he was on a senior citizen’s cable show. The cable show, hav…, it was a kind of trivial pursuit, asking questions and then a panel from this senior center or panel from that senior center would compete at getting the right answers. There was a very, mm mmm… well, she was very flirtatious, very attractive young host and she asked a question and the answer was Paderewski. And she went over to my daddy and she flirted with him and she went, “Oh, Mr. Birch, you must feel a little bit Polish to know that answer.

And my father, my father looked at that pretty, young girl and he said, “I’m not a little bit Polish, I’m all Polish!” with his arms thrown wide.

The Spirit Survives

Part One: Gertrude Bonnin

 

Part Two: Grandpa

 

Story Summary:

 The “Indian Experiment” in education, the government boarding schools, is unknown to many Americans, yet affects us all. Following forty years of study of these stories, Dovie knew she had to share what she’d learned that would be essential to her daughter, and all of us. She weaves history, biography, autobiography and personal reflection in this story that she never “wanted” to tell. But there are some stories that need to be told…

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:

The-Spirit-Survives-Part-I-Gertrude-Bonnin

The-Spirit-Survives-Part-2-Grandpa

Discussion Questions:

  1. Had you heard about the Indian Boarding schools? Why has this part of American history been largely hidden?
  2. What political and economic factors caused the U.S. Government to wage genocide against the First Nations?
  3. How does witnessing and speaking about tragedies such as this help heal the spirit? What made it possible for Dovie’s Grandfather to start speaking out? How and when do you tell young people about the oppression of their group by others?
  4. What factors in First Nation cultures supported families in surviving the unthinkable and continuing to thrive?

Resources:

Themes:

  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • First Nations/Native Americans
  • Jewish Americans/Jews
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

Part I-Gertrude Bonnin

Hi, my name’s Dovie Thomason and I’d like to tell you an excerpt from a larger story called “The Spirit Survives.”

In 1966, I went away to college on a minority academic scholarship. Ironically, my free ride to this posh private school was paid by a railroad dynasty. They got wealthy breaking their treaty with my tribe the Lakotas. And so I went to this school and somehow persuaded them to let me major in American Indian Studies. This major did not exist in the United States, as yet, so it was an independent study.

I was in the library one day. It was a massive library but it had only one book about Indians written by Indians. I remember this volume just fell off the shelf into my hand. It opened, on its own, to a page called School Days of an Indian Girl. The author’s name was Gertrude Bonnin. I didn’t know her name. I turned to the notes and some anthropologist had written, “One of the most important women ever in American history!”

“I don’t know her name,” I thought to myself! An Indian woman, one of the most important women in American history! I started to read that chapter. There I was, the only Indian girl in this posh college reading about this girl in 1884!

She wanted to go to college; she wanted to go to school and, ultimately, college. She’d heard about school from the big-hatted, big-hearted men, the Quaker missionaries on her Nakota reservation. Little Gertie Simmons wanted to go to school. She went to her mother; her mother did not want her to go. Her son had gone to school! He’d gone to school when the Indian agents came and threatened her, telling her they would withhold her rations unless she signed her mark on a document she could not read. She’d signed and lost her son! She wasn’t gonna lose her baby girl!

But little Gertie was strong willed and relentless! After a time, her mother sighed, I can imagine, and signed that document and little Gertie got on a train. She wasn’t eight years old; it was not even six years after the defeat of Custer. But this little one got on a train and took off!

She didn’t know where she was going. She didn’t know it was hundreds of miles from her home. She didn’t know it would be years before she’d ever return! She just wanted to go to this place. This Quaker man had told her of a place where the apples were like rosy clouds in the sky.

They rode that train for days and when they got there, there was no one! There were no apples and so that child, she curled on the floor in her mother’s blankets at night. They weren’t ready for these children that were arriving and these children had never spent a night without their relatives. She curled on the floor in her mother’s blankets when another girl came up to her and said (whispering), “Tomorrow they’re gonna cut our hair!”

“Why would they cut my hair?” said Gertie. Now she was frightened. They cut hair when your families died. They cut hair for grieving. They cut hair if you’re a coward. “There’s no reason for them to cut my hair. They will not cut my hair.”

And the girl said, “You’ll see! They are strong.”

Little Gertie was strong willed and she decided to resist. When they came for her the next morning, she was hiding but they found her. They dragged her screaming out from under the furniture. They tied her into a chair and she felt the cold steel of those scissors as they cut her braids. She heard the heavy thump of her hair hitting the floor. That night she cried herself to sleep. Alone, until that same girl came and comforted her using words in our language, words a mother would use with a baby. And then she said (quietly), “Don’t speak these words where they can hear you. They’ll hurt you! They’re strong; you can’t fight them!”

But little Gertie was one to resist. She was a smart child; she’d wanted to go to school. And so the… though she saw children getting sick, some going home where they infected their families, some moving off campus so if anything happened they wouldn’t be part of the death statistics for the school, little Gertie, she tried to study! She wanted to be there. She wanted to learn and she had a gift for listening and repeating what she learned. She had a musical gift – a voice made for song! She found a Quaker sponsor.

She did well in school. And that Quaker sponsor watched her and in the school, Gertie got exposed to other ideas. She did well in that school. Some of the children didn’t do so well. They got nightmares, night sweats, sleep walking; they woke ready to fight. They had trachoma and tuberculosis, smallpox – but it was the loneliness, the homesickness!

After a time, Gertie finished with the school. She decided she’d go home and visit her mother. But when she got home, she found this was not a place she belonged any more.

“My mother has never read a book!” she wrote. “My mother has never been inside a schoolhouse. How could she comfort a girl who can read and write? I no longer belong here. I am not a wild Indian or a tame one.”

And so she turned her back on her mother. She turned her back on the reservation and she went east. Going east, she found another sponsor; she went away to college. She started the debate team. She won awards, she told stories and recitations for presidents. She got a scholarship, another sponsor. She was to go to the New England Conservatory for Music. She was supposed to perform at the Paris Exposition.

But while she was summering in New York, she heard of the death of her fiancé. Now when she heard of this, suddenly Gertrude Simmons ceased to exist.

She renamed herself “Zitkala Ša” Redbird! She took the pins out of her hair and let long braids fall. She put off her Victorian clothes and started to wear buckskin. She started to organize for a vote and citizenship for Indian people. She started to organize for an education that wouldn’t mean the extinction of a culture. She believed a race of people – rich cultures – could not be seen as a problem that the government needed to fix with an experiment. She lost her sponsor but she started publishing. She published a book called “American Indian Stories” in 1901.

That was the book that fell into my hand. That was the book that changed my life for the last 40 years. You see, I think I was looking for a long-lost Lakota grandmother and I found her in the pages of the stories this woman wrote. Collected stories from old people that she met and survived the Indian wars and her own memories of this debilitating experience in the government schools. To tell you the truth, when I tell a story, I don’t know if it’s mine, my grandma’s or Zitkala Ša’s. Her life is woven with mine. We keep running into each other. She’s been my constant companion for so long. You see, it’s people who’s names you may not even know. Those are the people who are history. That’s what history is. That’s one of the things that Gertrude Bonnin “Zitkala Ša” told me!

Part II-Grandpa

Hi, my name is Dovie Thomason. And this is a piece of a longer story called “The Spirit Survives.”

I was standing in a graveyard with my daughter on Labor Day weekend a number of years ago. She was just almost 13 and wondered about my choice of end of summer vacation locations. Other people were with us. We weren’t alone. There was a movement of many people going through headstones. Soft voices, gifts being placed on identical markers. We were in Carlisle, Pennsylvania near where we live, at the site of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. We were there as a part of a group of people who had come to put up a historical marker. Most of group descendants of the survivors of the school who had pressured the state of Pennsylvania to acknowledge the need for a historical marker in this place. You see, it’s a military base. It has always been a military base. It was won during the French and Indian Wars. It’s where Custer and his cavalry trained before riding west. And in 1918, it again became a military base and is to this day. Mostly residential barracks for military families. But for a brief time in 1879, it opened its doors as the first government residential school for Indian children. It was not voluntary. These children were considered hostages for the good behavior of their parents who were still at war with Custer and the cavalry. And now with all these graves, people would drive past and assume it was military graves. What they didn’t know was it did mark a battlefield but the victims were children. These were the graves of Indian children and no one knew. We wanted to shed light on this dark chapter of American history. We thought that the thing that had been concealed – it was time to bring it into clear view.

Now, my daughter knew some of this. Her grandpa had gone to government school, not this one, one of the later ones modeled after this one. But she didn’t know much about Carlisle. You see, there are some stories you don’t want to tell your children but those are the stories you probably need to tell them. Grandpa used to talk about the schools but in those times, well, years past when my daughter was not yet a teen, Grandma would stop him. “It upsets him,” she would say. “It does no good to talk about it. That was back then. That was long ago. It does no good. It upsets him.” There are some stories you don’t want to tell your children. Well, it did upset Grandpa and he didn’t tell them in front of Grandma. He told them to me and I shared them with my daughter. I didn’t want to tell my daughter. There are some stories you don’t want to tell your daughter but I knew it was a story I had to tell her.

Grandpa was taken when he was 4 to the schools. For 12 years he was there. He had been taken from his grandfather and for 12 years he never saw him. He was taken with other children. Little ones who only spoke their native language – the Oneida language. He was taken with those boys and the only time they could speak the language was when they snuck off out of sight. When they were supposed to be working in the fields. The children worked in the fields, they raised chickens… for the chickens and the eggs. Grandpa would always say, “Chickens and eggs! Never ate chickens and eggs. We ate mush every meal! The mush hole, that’s what I call that!” He’s still angry when he says those words, remembering the beatings he would get for calling it that when he was a child. “They just took the chickens and eggs for the government when they visited so they could see that the children were getting civilized and making progress! The mush hole!” They were little children. They were hungry. They were eating the scraps the staff threw out the windows for the birds. Grandpa does get upset when he tells these stories.

The children would take potatoes from the field and they’d stuff ’em in their clothes. Grandpa never could understand how something he had planted, something he had harvested wasn’t his and that if he took it, he was stealing. He could be beaten for that. But they were hungry, these children and they would heat them behind the boilers until they were roasted and eat them at night. So many stories he told me. So many stories he now tells his granddaughter. But on this day, on this day he was gonna tell a story that I never expected.

As I was standing there thinking about he had told me, my daughter waved at me. “Grandpa’s trying to get your attention.” We had a ceremony to go to. Hundreds of descendants there to unveil this marker. As we walked over, her Grandpa came up to me and said, “I wanna talk.”

I said, “Well, oh, really! Well, ok, dad, you know, it is a pretty big crowd. You’re gonna have to use a microphone. Um. But you just get up there… and you just get up there and you tell your story!”

And he said, “I ain’t telling no story. You tell the story. I just need to talk.” And he got up there and he talked. He wasn’t the only one. Old men, old women, they got up there and each one of them and they talked. They talked of hard times and good times. They told funny stories, sad stories, heartbreaking stories, careers in the military, Indian service, lifetime friends, marriages made, suicides. Disease. Brokenness, what they are now calling post-traumatic stress. They all told their stories and there were lots of tears. Grandpa spoke. He was so brave. Those people he was talking to, hundreds of them, they weren’t strangers anymore once they told their stories. He’s still talk’n. He’s part of those who’ve taken part of the class action suit against the Government of Canada, provincial government to the Church of England. He’s one of those people who came together when the prime minister, in 2008, issued that apology to native peoples, the peoples of the First Nation, for the treatment of children in the schools. That’s all he ever wanted. He didn’t want reparations. He didn’t want a check. He wanted someone to say what happened to those children was wrong. He wanted the decency and the respect of an apology.

And so, he’s talking still. He just worked on a memorial at the school where he went. They’re not shy about talking anymore. And my daughter, her senior project was interviewing them and people on the reserve about what happened there. And when she finished that paper and handed it into our history teacher her senior year of high school, her history teacher didn’t know a thing about what my daughter wrote her and thanked her for teaching her something she didn’t know about America.

 

Three Sisters

 

Story Summary:

In 1988 Jim and his wife lived with a family in Nicaragua. Jim learned about gratitude by watching how a young girl appreciated a single piece of gum or a sheet of paper.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Three-Sisters

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why do you think the storyteller felt like he had “never been in a room with more hope” in his life?
  2. Does hope play a role in your life? If yes, in what way? Have you ever felt hopeless? What or who can bring you out of hopeless feelings?
  3. Why are the little girl and her family so poor? What is going on in the country of Nicaragua at the time of this story?
  4. What is Iran-Contra?

Resource:

  • Art, Truth and Politics by Harold Pinter. A Nobel Prize in Literature lecture in which he explains the Sandinista revolution.

Themes:

  •  Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Latino American/Latinos
  • Living and Traveling Abroad

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name is Jim Stowell and the story of “Three Sisters” is from an evening of stories, entitled, “Talking Pictures,” which was produced by The Great American History Theater.

Three Sisters

In 1988, my wife, Jessica and I lived with a Canali family in León, Nicaragua. León, is, uh…in the northeast central part of the country and is the second largest city in Nicaragua. And when we were there, Nicaragua was very, very poor, rating only above Haiti. In the Canali family was Luis the father, Maria Elena the mother; she was a wonderful lady. They had three daughters, Gloria who was 15, Dominique who was 12, and Maria, named after her mother, was nine. And they all lived in a little cluster of houses called, “El Colectivo.” And every house was designed to look exactly the same. And they were all very small made out of gray brick with red tile roof and a red tile floor.

One day, at Maria’s school, they received a kind of care package from a religious organization in the United States and every child in school was getting something from the package. And Maria was given a single stick of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum. She raced home after school. I just happened to be sitting in the living room when she ran in and she saw me and she looked at me. She has this gorgeous smile and she opened the bottom drawer of the chest of drawers. This is the only piece of furniture like this in the house, and she shares this drawer with her two older sisters. And she pulled out a very precious possession, a plastic baggie that still seals. And then I watched as she pulled the chewing gum out of the little paper sleeve. And I watched as she very, very carefully unwrapped the tin foil from around the chewing gum, set the chewing gum aside and then she, kind of, straightened the tin foil out. And she took the side, the inside, the side that had been wrapped around the chewing gum and she put it right to her nose and gave this big sniff. SNIFF! Oh, I can see on her face that this was such a sugar rush for her. But she only sniffed once. And then I watched as she very, very carefully rewrapped the chewing gum in that tin foil, put it back on the little paper sleeve, put that in the plastic baggie, sealed the baggie and put that in the bottom drawer.

That evening, just before she went to bed, Luis and I were sitting in the living room talking and Maria came walking in. And she looked at her father; she looked at the drawer. She looked at her father; she looked at the drawer. She looked at her father; he started to laugh. “Ya, ya, si, si, si!” So she opened the drawer, she pulled out the baggie, opened it, and then she pulled the chewing gum out of the little paper sleeve. Very, very carefully unwrapped the chewing gum, set it aside, took the tin foil, SNIFF! Oh, such sweetness! This was for her, her bedtime snack. And then I watched as she very, very carefully, trying not to touch the tin foil too much, being very gentle, rewrap the chewing gum; put it back in the paper sleeve, put it in the baggie, in the drawer. The next day, she chewed that gum and she chewed it all day!

That evening, Jessica and I were sitting in the living room and, you know, this room is about 10 x 12. It’s not very big. And the three sisters were there in their school dresses, sitting on the floor. And Maria Elena was there and Luis. And they were sitting in chairs, helping their daughters with their homework. And they did all the homework with chalk on the red tile floor. And so they did all the figuring and re-spelling, things like, that on the floor. And then they take a wet cloth and wipe the floor. The floor was like this big Etch-A-Sketch because paper was so expensive and so hard to find only the answers could go down on paper.

So after all the homework was done, Maria opened the drawer, brought out the plastic baggie, inside was the tin foil. And I looked, and there was Gloria and Dominique, and they knew what the tin foil was. And they saw that tin foil and I knew that for them, this was gonna be a very sweet treat! So Maria handed the tin foil to her oldest sister, first. Gloria was so excited! She had this big smile on her face. And she gave a mighty sniff. SNIFF! But the tin foil was getting a little older now and a little looser. And so when she gave this sniff, part of it actually rattled at the bottom of her nose. Ra, ta, ta, ta, ta! And it was like it sounded like a window shade going around. Ra, ta, ta, ta, ta! And it tickled the bottom of her nose and she started to laugh. And Dominique, she took the tin foil and she gave a mighty sniff. And it did smell sweet but it tickled her nose and she started to laugh. And Maria took the tin foil and she sniffed. Ra, ta, ta, ta, ta! And then she started to laugh. And the three sisters put their arms around each other’s shoulders and they were sitting in this dim light on the red tile floor, in their white school dresses with the red sash and their long black hair laughing. It starts to rain, an instant tropical downpour… drumming on that red tile roof. And the sisters were laughing and their laughter rose up, rose up to meet, to mix, to dance, with the Nicaraguan night rain.

Who is a Friend? German-Jewish Reconciliation After the Holocaust

 

Story Summary:

 Who is my friend and who is my enemy? Gail Rosen, a Jewish storyteller, goes to Germany and makes a surprising connection to a German man who lived through WWII.

 For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Who-is-a-Friend–German-Jewish-Reconciliation-After-the-Holocaust

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you think people make assumptions or judgments about you based on how you look? What might they be? What do people think they know about you by looking at you? How could they be right and how could they be wrong?
  2. Can you tell of a time when you made assumptions or judgments about a person, but learned to think differently of that person later? How did that happen?
  3. How do you choose your friends? What qualities do you value in a friend?

Resources:

Themes:

  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Interfaith
  • Jewish Americans/Jews
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

Hi, I’m Gail Rosen and I’m a storyteller. One of the most important stories to me, that I tell, is the story of a Jewish-German holocaust survivor. Her name was Hilda Cohen. Now I had learned about the Holocaust in high school. I’d studied about it but hearing a survivor story, that made it much more personal, more real.

In 2002, I came across an organization called Compassionate Listening. Their basic premise is that you can’t hate someone, if you’ve really heard their story. And so, they teach listening –  listening in a way that helps us to hear our common humanity in the hopes that, that kind of listening can help us to resolve conflicts.

I signed up for the Compassionate Listening Project for German-Jewish Reconciliation, and I went to Germany. I’d never thought about… going to Germany, wanted to go to Germany… but I wanted to go and see some of the places where Hilda’s story happened. And I wanted to tell her story to some of the people there, and I wanted to hear their stories.

There were 34 of us. Half of us Jews from the United States and half non-Jewish Germans. And on the first night of the project, we were sitting on a polished, wooden floor on cushions, sitting in a circle in an A- framed, shaped room with glass all around. And we went around the circle. And we each shared our feelings about coming together, to share the wounds that have reverberated through the generations, and into our own hearts, and bodies, and minds, and psyches since that time, since World War II.

One of the Jewish men told about his parents fleeing Germany with him when he was just seven years old. And he told about how they brought him up Episcopalian in northern California. They were too frightened to be Jews, even in the United States. Two other Jewish women talked about their mothers’ experiences in the concentration camps. I spoke about Hilda’s story, about the responsibility of carrying that story, and about wanting to share it there, in that place.

But it was the speaking of the Germans that stunned me.

One woman said, “Hitler ripped the heart out of our country. And now you are back.”

Another said, “We’ve been waiting, longing for our Jewish brothers and sisters to return, and finally you are here. Thank you. Thank you for coming.”

And they wept.

There was one man in the circle who drew my attention. His name is Ulrich. He’s a German man. He’s tall, very blond. He held himself very erect. His jaw was tight. And, and, though he held himself upright, when I looked at Ulrich, I had the distinct impression of someone who was doubled over in pain. And in the first days, hhh, of the project, he, he shared with us that he had always suspected that his father had been a perpetrator. Someone who willingly assisted the Nazis in their persecution of the Jews. He told us how frightened he had always been of his father. Now, Ulrich is just a couple of years older than I am. Neither of us was born when that war ended, but as a little boy he was terrified of his father. And even as a grown man with his own children, family, his own career, he was, he was frightened of his father.

During the project, we traveled together to Bergen-Belsen. It’s the site of a Nazi concentration camp. Now, in Jewish tradition, we’re taught that to attend a funeral is a special mitzvah, a blessing, because you see the dead can never return the favor. And it seemed to me that, that site of Bergen-Belsen is like an eternal funeral.

It’s beautiful there; it’s park-like. There are aspen trees and moss and wild grasses. There’s a large, circular, cobblestone path, and around that path are the burial mounds.

When the Allied Forces liberated Bergen-Belsen, they found tens of thousands, dead and dying. And so, the Army dug huge, rectangular mass graves. And they laid the bodies in, in tight rows, and then stacked them like cords of wood. And covered them over. Some of them are as large as a city block. And they’re about chest high.

And on the front of each one is a, a large cement plaque and they read in German, “Here rest 1000 dead 1945.” “Here rest 800 dead 1945.” “Here rest 2500 dead.” “Here rest 2000 dead.” “Here rest untold numbers dead 1945.” There are many of them.

I walked in that place with Ulrich. And he told me, that after his father died, he and his siblings had found, locked in a safe, hidden away, an old briefcase. And, in that briefcase, were papers that indicated that his father, his father was probably, at least, partly responsible for the deaths of between 10,000 and 45,000 Jewish men, women, and children in small villages in Russia.

He said, “I consider myself my father’s son. I do not carry his guilt. I cannot change the brutal past. But I have to find a way, how to deal with this inheritance.” And then he said, “But it seems wrong. Wrong of me to talk of my pain in this place.”

Before we left Bergen-Belsen, we held a ritual service. We stood in a circle, we lit candles, and we sang prayers. There was, on the edge of the circle, a bowl of wildflower seeds. And after the service, we were each to take a handful of those seeds, and then scatter them among the wild grasses in the fields. The service had ended, and I was standing on the edge of the circle, and I looked across and I saw Ulrich. He was kneeling by the bowl of seeds. He had taken a fistful of them and his head was bowed over his hand. And I looked at him. His father helped to murder innocent people.

I thought, “How can I look at this man and not imagine his father’s crimes. But how can I look at this man, and not see an innocent, frightened little boy.”

I walked over. I knelt down. I took a handful of seeds. With my other hand, I pulled Ulrich to his feet. I pried open his fingers, I poured my seeds into his hand, mixed the seeds together, took half, and we went together, and we scattered the seeds in the field.

I’ve been to Germany five times now. Ulrich and I continue to write. He and his wife came to United States, and they visited; they had dinner at my home. And in January, I’m going back to Germany to tell Hilda’s story at Ulrich’s syna… at Ulrich’s church and a school nearby. And I will stay with him and his wife. We think of each other as friends.

When my father died, Ulrich sent me a card. Now, many of my friends sent cards, and they were lovely. But the one that moved me the most was the one from Ulrich. I want to read you a little of it.

He said, “Dear Gail, your dad has left you. I have never met him, yet, in my mind’s eye, I have the image of a kind and gentle man. A thought comes to my mind. The deaths of our parents, makes us the elders. There is no living generation before us. There is a little candle burning in front of me in honor of a man I never knew. I know his daughter. With great sympathy, Ulrich.”

I am grateful. I am grateful for people who are willing to share their stories. I am grateful for people who are willing to hear the stories of others, and I am grateful for my friend.

Negotiating the Narrows

RaceBridges highlights a short video for
your viewing and inspiration.

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Negotiating the Narrows

A short video story by Storyteller Susan Klein

Themes : Religious Differences.  Recognizing the various kinds of “isms”.  Hope for societal change that embraces diversity.

(Please be patient as the video may take a few moments to load.)

…….
As a young child Klein was intrigued by the mysterious practices of her Roman Catholic friends and neighbors. In the 1950s the Roman Catholic Church was still seen as somewhat foreign and was largely unknown or misunderstood by Protestant America. Although she was raised in the Methodist church, Klein was dazzled by Rosary beads, statues of saints, and the very mysterious Sunday Mass she attended with her best friend Debbie.    (more…)

CONSTRUCTION

By Storyteller Jim May

 

Story Summary:

Storyteller Jim May relates his days working his way through school on a union construction crew; as well as the unions roll in softening the effects of classism and racism.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Construction

Discussion Questions:

  1. Have you ever worked in a menial job with someone without an education but found that they had much wisdom and sound advice based on their natural intelligence, intuition and life experience?
  2. Have you ever worked in a job where you were kept on but someone was let go in spite of the fact that they were as good a worker as you? Was there some kind of prejudice involved around race, gender, sexual orientation, class or age?
  3. What is your feeling about labor unions? What was their role in ushering in the 40-hour week, getting paid for overtime and ending child labor among other worker benefits?

Resources:

  • Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do by Studs Terkel
  • Working Class in America by Eugene Debs
  • History of the U.S. Labor Movement: Labor Movement in the United States: Volume Two by Phillip Foner
  • Trail Guide For A Crooked Heart by Jim May (p. 12)

Themes:

  • African American/Black History
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Workplace

Full Transcript:

I was about 16 years old, somewhere in 1963. I had my first construction job, the first time, really, out of my little town, Spring Grove that I had grown up in. This was the first time I had the chance to work side by side with African-American workers and learned from them and learned a little bit about work, what the world of heavy construction was to them, being middle-aged and black versus the experience of a 17-year-old high school kid.

Well, it was the summer of 1963, and I got a job during high school summer vacation. It felt like my first real job, although the summer before that I had worked on a thoroughbred horse farm, and it was a real job, we worked six days a week, 11 hours a day sometimes. But it was farm work, the kind of work I grew up with; the working climate was a little more informal than my job during my junior year in high school, which was working for a union excavation company, concrete and excavation work. And this was the best company to work for. This company almost single handedly raised a good deal of farm boys out of the working class to the middle class during those years. Not many companies, that I knew of at least, were paying union wages at that time. Now my brother had gotten a job working for this company, and my brother was sort of a construction genius as it turns out, we were already beginning to realize that. He dropped out of high school but really could run machines, really understood everything about a construction project.

He got me the job. So, I was 16, 17, I didn’t know anything about construction, barely knew, which end of the shovel was up. I was the kind of guy the old guys were talking about, telling jokes about, sending the kid to the trailer to get a left-handed hammer. You know, I probably would have gone a couple of times before I figured out what they were doing to me. So what do you do with a dumb, fairly strong kid? Well, you give him the hardest, dumbest job on the job, and on this job we were pouring thousands of feet of curbing, cement curbing. And back in those days you had to take a steel form, by hand, drive it into the ground with sledge hammers and steel form pins. They poured the concrete between the curbing forms and then it all had to dry for several hours at least to set up, and then someone had to go and pull all those pins, and you did it basically with a crow bar and a chain. And you leaned over, set the crow bar against the steel form—you didn’t want to get into the concrete, because you’d notch it or make a dent in it if it was a little bit green. Sometimes the job was moving so fast that you had to pull the pins when the concrete was little bit green, and then you would just pull. You would bend over and take the crow bar and just lift with your legs and your back and pull; oh, some of them were close to an inch in diameter, those pins. And this was in Zion, Illinois, so it was Lake County, which was notorious for the clay-packed soil.

So, it was hard work, and no overtime; you got union wages, but someone would put the crow bar on the curb before you started in the morning. You got out of your car at exactly 8’o clock. You got back into your car at exactly 4.30, no overtime. Someone else would put the tools out. As the foreman would say, “All I wanna see from you guys is arse and elbows. You know, I wanna see you guys bending over, pulling pins. You’re not paid to think, you’re paid to work.” So that naturally was the job that the kids got, high school kids, college kids, “dumb kids” they called us and worse. So that was the low job on the crew.  Now, so basically that was my job and couple of other high school kids and a couple of younger college kids and two middle-aged black guys who knew a lot about construction, much more than we did, but they did not have any connections with the company. They were union, sent out “from the hall,” as they said, and they were right there with us doing the lowest, hardest job on the crew. And though they must have felt some humiliation to be in that position, they were always very kind to me at least and everyone as I remember. They gave us good working man hints on how to survive in heat and that kind of hard work. I remember I would look at my watch sometimes and would be suffering from that heat, pulling those pins, and they would say, “Oh, Jim, don’t look at your watch, don’t look at your watch, that will slow the time down. Never look at your watch!”

So, I just I had this sense of privilege that I was only sixteen and somehow had gotten into that position where these men had been working construction all their lives and hadn’t gotten any higher in the company than that particular skill, which required brawn and that was all. On the positive side, if it hadn’t been for the union they wouldn’t have been there at all, out in the “Ru-burbs” way out in the country. Where the company was based there wouldn’t have been any black men living, or very unlikely to have that position at all. So, the union was slowly changing things, looking back on it. But I also had this sense that there was an injustice. The work slowed down, and we got laid off. All the young kids got laid off, and these black guys got laid off. And I remember having a sense that maybe I wouldn’t be able to go to college, because my father had died that year before and there was no money and this was how I was going to go to college. And I remembered being called back and being very relieved but I didn’t see, didn’t hear those two black guys were called back and I asked about it but never received any information.

I was telling someone about this, and they said, “Did you ever bring this up? Or talk about the inequity?” Someone asked if I brought it up with the foreman. My first thought was I was afraid to even talk about the weather with the foreman. The foreman, you know, wore these state-trooper, mirrored-glasses and ran around screaming at people. He had a big bumper sticker on his car that said, “I don’t have ulcers. I give them.” He was known as “Firing Dick” I think was his name. But he eventually kind of took me under his wing and kept me working for several summers, helped me get through college. He was under that same pressure. When the owner would come, he would take his helmet off and put under his arm like a good cadet and take his glasses off and scurry right over to the boss’ big car. Everybody was under this kind of intense pressure. I think most of the workers that I worked with had grown up working class or were raised poor or the only alternative was farming, and farming was dying at that point in the late sixties, mid-sixties and seventies. And this was a union job, and you couldn’t afford to take care of yourself; if you were asked to do a job that wasn’t safe, you couldn’t afford to say, “I think I’d better wait till somebody gets here with some safety glasses or a helmet.” You just dug in and you just did the job, because it felt like survival. So everybody was under that system, and the owner of the company, there were all kinds of legendary stories about him starting out with nothing but a wheel barrow and cleaning the ashes out of wood burning stores and along Front Street in McHenry. So, the system was pretty locked in, but the union was the wedge that began to change things, I think that’s an important piece of it as well.

Use this video and story in your classroom with the Reflections and Discussions

http://racebridgesstudio.com/story-short-construction/

I Deserve To Be Here

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I Deserve To Be Here

A short video by Storyteller Emily Hooper Lansana

THEME:  Crossing Color Lines to Reach For Your Best

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emilyEmily Hooper Lansana’s story tells us about her educational journey growing up in a house where her parents always wanted her to have access to the best.  Growing up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, she learned a lot about the ways that kids of different races were separated, and separated themselves, at school.    (more…)

STORY SHORT: You Never Know What the End’s Gonna Be

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You Never Know What The End’s Gonna Be
by Storyteller Diane Ferlatte

www.dianeferlatte.com
Approximate Length of Video and Audio: 5 minutes, 20 seconds.

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 THEME
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Family Ties that moved from conflict to care and love across racial lines.
(more…)

NEXT TOWN

By Storyteller DIANE FERLATTE

 

Story Summary:

 As a child, each summer Diane’s family drove from California to Louisiana to visit family. Diane remembers her father responding with increasing frustration whenever her brother asked if they could stop to get something to eat, each time promising “next town.”

Finally, the family stopped at a restaurant. Just as she is about to open the restaurant door, her father stops her. There is a “whites only” sign above the door. Diane’s family must go around back to eat in the kitchen. Diane learned about prejudice that day but also about how her family kept their spirits high no matter what they faced.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Next-Town

Discussion Questions:

  1. What did you think the title “Next Town” referred to when you first read it? How do you react to the title now that you know how it was used?
  2. Diane’s parents left Louisiana to escape the segregated south, which oppressed African Americans with Jim Crow laws and threats of violence. Why do you think they returned every summer? Why do you think some African Americans stayed in the south?
  3. Diane learns significant lessons on the day she describes in this story. She learns that people can hate her without even knowing her and that there are people such as her parents who maintain their integrity even in the face of such hate. When have you faced irrational prejudice in yourself or others? How did you deal with it?

Resources:

  • The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
  • A Guide for Using The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 in the Classroom by Debra Housel

Themes:

  •  African American/Black History
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name is Diane Ferlatte, and I am a storyteller. I’m gonna tell you an excerpt from a longer story of my life, a true story. In the 1940’s and 50’s, many black people just left the south because of Jim Crow laws. They were just sick and tired of Jim Crow laws and the segregation in the south, and my family was no different. My daddy put us on a train and we left Louisiana, going all the way to California, where I live now. And things were different in California.

I liked living in California. But, guess what? Every summer, my only summer vacation, my whole family would get in the car and drive all the way back to Louisiana to visit family, you know, grandma and grandpa. But can you imagine that?  Driving thousands of mile across that desert, in all that heat, in a car, with no air conditioning. And we couldn’t stop, you know at hotels, get a nice rest, take a quick shower. No, the only time we stopped is to get some gas or to use the bathroom, you know, to get rid of some gas! We couldn’t stop at restaurants either to get something to eat because we didn’t have a lot of money. But before we left, my mother would fry chicken; we had sandwiches, we had cookies, we had grapes, we had apples—I mean, the car was stacked up with food and pillows. We were on our way, to Louisiana! It was me in the back seat, next to the cookies, my two knuckle-head brothers, my mama and my daddy, and off we went.

But before we left California of course the food was gone. As soon as the food was gone, my brother started hollering, “Daddy, I’m hungry. Can we stop and get something to eat?” My father said, “Next town.” But the next town, “Hey, Daddy, there’s a place! Can we stop, can we stop?” He said “Next town,” and pretty soon there we are at the next town. He said, “Daddy, Daddy, I’m hungry! Can we stop, daddy?” He said “Next town, boy!” I don’t know what happened, my daddy, he must have got hungry himself because he finally stopped and when he stopped, my brother was Mr. Happy, “Oh man, I’m gonna have me a hamburger, I’m gonna have me some French fries!” And I said, “I am having some biscuits!”

I jumped out of the car, I ran to the front door of that restaurant. I opened the screen door, I was just about to go in and get my biscuits, and my daddy said, “Get away from that door, girl, can’t you read that sign?” And I looked up, and there was a sign above the restaurant door that said: “Whites only.” Black people couldn’t go in. I was ten years old when that happened. Ten. And I got so angry, I picked up a rock and I was gonna chunk it at that sign and my daddy said, “Put that rock down. Don’t you pay any attention to that sign. Don’t you worry, we’re going to get something to eat. Put that rock down. Put it down!” My daddy took me by the hand and he led us around the side of the building all the way to the back of the restaurant. It was so hot outside, you could fry an egg on the sidewalk.

My daddy was talking fast, like he does when he is upset and he made me a little nervous. When he walked through the back door of the restaurant, he had a big smile on his face. He walked in and he said, “Morning, how’s everybody doing this morning?” But I looked around: we had to eat in the kitchen. We thought it was hot outside, try eating in that hot kitchen! Because, see, all the fans were up front in the restaurant, for the white customers. We sat down at two old, wooden tables in the kitchen, and I will never forget what happened next. It was a tall, brown-skinned woman, my color skin, standing behind the stove. She was the cook, you know, apron tied high, scarf tied around the hair so that the hair wouldn’t fall in the food she was cooking, and there was a window behind her that went to the restaurant, and the waitress would call all these orders to her through that window. She would say, “Eggs over easy! Bacon crisp! Biscuits!”

But the cook looked over at me, and she saw my lip was poked out, and my daddy was trying to calm me down. And she said, “Biscuits not ready yet!” Then she looked back at me and said, “Don’t you worry, baby, I’m gonna feed you all first.” So who got the first biscuits that day? We did. But as a little girl, I learned a lot about prejudice. As a little girl, I learned a lot about how people can hate you, they don’t even know you! But I also learned how some people handle it, because even though my daddy was just as angry as me inside, he didn’t let prejudice spoil his day or his meal. And we did get something to eat. My daddy was just like he liked his eggs—sunny-side up. Everybody liked my daddy, who took time to get to know you. He was always able to keep on the sunny side of life—because there is the other side! But that’s the story, a true story from my life.

PENNY FOR YOUR THOUGHTS

By Storyteller DIANE FERLATTE

 

Story Summary:

While sitting alone in a restaurant having lunch, Ferlatte notices an older white man also eating alone and looking sad and worried. When she tries to be friendly, the man responds with a grunt. Ferlatte starts labeling him in her mind as a “mean old white man.” Later, she corrects her own thinking by reminding herself that she doesn’t know anything about the man. Later, as he leaves the restaurant, the man pours out his story, sharing that his wife of 61 one years has recently died. The two end up having a brief conversation, and Ferlatte realizes the importance of reaching across barriers of race, culture, and generations in order focus on the person right in front of you.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Penny-for-Your-Thoughts

Discussion Questions:

  1. What do you think inspired Ferlatte to speak to the old man? How would you have felt if you had been Ferlatte, and the old man had grunted at you? What would you have thought about him?
  2. Have you ever tried to reach across a barrier (race, age, language, class, etc.) with someone you didn’t know? How did it go? Did you learn from that experience?
  3. Ferlatte manages her own initial reaction against the man. How does she do that? Have you ever had to talk to yourself to get yourself to think differently? When? Did it work?

Resource:

  • The Nature of Prejudice: 25th Anniversary Edition by Gordon W. Allport and Kenneth Clark

Themes:

  • African American/Black History
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

Hi, I’m Diane Ferlatte. I’m a storyteller. I’m gonna tell you a small excerpt from… a longer story but it’s a true story.

I was going to a school to tell stories. In the morning, I had two assemblies, had a quick lunch break, two assemblies in the afternoon. Well, I finished my two assemblies, rushed to a restaurant nearby and I told them I was in a hurry.

“Oh, don’t worry. We’ll seat you right away, ma’am.”

She brought me in, set me at a booth, gave me my menu. I made my order and I sat there to wait. While I’m waiting, I get a little warm. Whoo! So, I get up, I go to put my coat down on the seat opposite my booth. And when I do that, uh, I looked up and I see an older white man sitting in his booth, facing me and his eyes look blank. You ever see folks like that. He looked very worried and very sad.

So, I say to him, “Penny for your thoughts!”

And he kinda comes out of it and he said, “What did you say to me?”

I said, “Penny for your thoughts.”

He said, “Aah!”

And when he did that, I sat down with an attitude! All the little prejudices we all have, begin to bubble up. And I said to myself, “Mean old white man, why does he have to be so rude and so grumpy. I’m just trying to be friendly. Uh huh, mean old white man.”

But the more I sat there, I thought, “What are you doing? Why did you have to say, ‘mean old white man?’ Why even think that. You don’t even know what’s going on in that man’s mind. Why he might be looking so sad or worried. Chill out!”

So, I did. And I always bring a book to read looking for another story. His food comes first and then my food comes. So, I’m sitting there, you know, reading and eating, and reading and eating, reading and eating.

He finishes first and he gets up to go pay. But to go up front to pay, he has to pass my booth and when he gets to my booth, he stops. And I think, “Oh, oh!”

And then he leans over and he said, “What did you say to me?”

And I said, “Penny for your thoughts.”

He said, “Young lady, if you only knew. My wife died three weeks ago and I don’t know what to do.

I said, “I knew something was wrong but I didn’t know what to do. I thought maybe I should say something.”

He said, “Well, you sure got that right. You believe, we were married 61 years!”

I said, “What! You were married 61 years… to the same woman!”

And that made him smile. Then he came really close to my face and he said, “You believe, I’m 90 years old?

I said, “What? You’re 90 years old? Let me touch you. I want to live to be that old.” I said, “You’re 90 years old, married to the same woman 61 years.” I said, “You are blessed; you are blessed. You don’t have to worry about a thing. Everything’s going to be all right.”

That old man tapped me on my left shoulder like this and he said, “Thank you, young lady. Thank you.” And he left.

But, you know, that old man didn’t have to stop and say anything to me. But he did. I didn’t have to say anything to him. But I did. Two cultures coming together in that one little moment of life. Two generations really, coming together in that one little moment of life. But you know what they say, “The most important person in this world is the one you’re with right now.” It’s a true story from my life. We all got ’em, ha!

BARTHOLOMEW

By Storyteller MARYGAY DUCEY

 

Story Summary:

 Bartholomew, an African American man who is the church custodian is a familiar figure to the congregation at Mary Gay’s church. However, when it’s rumored that African Americans are coming to their church and will be asked to be seated, suddenly the pleasant veneer of acceptance is exposed.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Bartholomew

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Why could the people in Mary Gay’s congregation be welcoming to one African American man but feel threatened by other African Americans who would be seated with them as equals?
  2. How did churches become so segregated and why are so many still segregated today?

Resources:

  •  Church Diversity: Sunday the Most Segregated Day of the Week by Scott Williams
  •  Segregated Sabbaths: Richard Allen and the Emergence of Independent Black Churches 1760-1840 by Carol V. R. George

Themes:

  •  African American/Black History
  • European American/Whites
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination

Full Transcript:

Hello, I’m MaryGay Ducey. I’m going to tell you a story. This story is from when I was a pretty, small girl but not so small that I couldn’t remember a good story even at the time. I was about in the fourth, fifth grade, maybe a little younger, maybe a little older. We belonged to a Presbyterian church. And the church had the equivalent of soccer camp or music camp, except in those days it was called Daily Vacation Bible School and it was free. So, my parents were very interested in that, in that activity. And you could go two weeks and then go two weeks more. They wanted us to do all four weeks. Every year it was the very same one, the very same camp, we had two projects. First, we made Joseph’s Coat of Many Colors out of crepe paper. That took a long time because if you put one drop of liquid on crepe paper the entire coat disappears in front of your eyes. And the second one, was to make our Palestine home. Which was where people slept on the roof, and we put lots of sand up there, and we had little stick figures for our Palestine family. Every year same thing. We sang songs every day and camp, so-called, was held right in the sanctuary, which was a little magical because our preacher wasn’t there. We started the day, everyday, singing, “Oh, do Lord, oh, do Lord, oh, do remember me.” And they taught us The Disciples right away. But I always made a mistake. I was double the couple. Kind of. We’d sing, “There were 12 disciples. Jesus called to help him. Simon Peter, Andrew, James, his Brother John. Philip, Thomas, Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, Thaddeus, Thomas, Judas, (spits) and Bartholomew.”

In that very sanctuary, while we have Bible School, there was a man named Bartholomew. He didn’t have a last name. Not that I knew. He was a black man and he was a lay preacher in his own church on the weekends. He had, oh, 11 children. All of them were named for the disciples. And there was a Judy, the only girl. She was named after…well, Judy. So, every week we would talk to him because we had to choose a Bible verse, every one of us, and were presented to the whole congregation, with our proud and sweating parents, at the end of those two weeks. That’s a grave decision which one you chose. And somebody got, “Jesus wept,” right away, which was the best and easiest. So, it took us a while and we made our many, many, many… oh, little bits of, of clay things and all sorts of strange papers and drawings. We didn’t know what, really, we were doing but we had fun…except for that bible verse. We went home and talked to our parents but I talked to Bartholomew. My mom worked at the church sometimes and we would be there alone. And Bartholomew would have a great, big broom. He would sweep it around the floor; describe a great, giant circle. And I would follow him, just like a duckling. And say, “Bartholomew, you got a verse for me. You are a preacher.”

He said, “Oh I have.”

I said, “What is it?”

He said, “Oh, no. You have to choose your own verse. It has to mean something to you.”

I said, “It will mean something to me to have it.”

He said, “No, it doesn’t work that way.”

“So, how does it work?”

He said, “You choose one, tell me. I’ll, I’ll tell you whether I think it’s right.”

We have many kids in our school, our Bible School. One of them was called Piglet because his best friend was a bag of chips and he brought his best friend every day. Every day. Held it like a teddy bear. The kid named Kay Mullet. She was there. And somebody else named Ronnie. He was there. He cried every day. For years and years, he cried every day. But he learned his Bible verse faster than we did. I didn’t know what to choose.

There were strange times at home, in the city. My dad and all the men at church kept talking about when they might come into our church. I didn’t really know quite what they meant, but one night, I came home and there was a meeting of the elders of the church. All of them huddled around the kitchen table. And one of them said, “Well, I know when they come, if they try to come in, we’ll just call the cops. You know, black and white. You’re not supposed to be together in church. We’ll just call the cops.”

Ronny’s daddy said, “No, I don’t think we should call the cops. We just shouldn’t be welcoming. Just close the doors.”

My daddy said, “Well, let’s see what happens.” Could do this, could do that.

And the next day, I told Bartholomew what my Bible verse was. “Thou blowest nother, neither hot nor cold. And I shall spit thee out of my mouth.” That was mine. It wasn’t long before we were ready. Just about ready. As ready as children who are tired of Joseph’s Coat of Many Colors and who want to go home early and don’t want to listen to the sermon can be. Two days before that service, I waited in the pews with Bartholomew and I said, “Bartholomew, you got a church?”

He said, “Oh yes!”

I said, “When am I going to your church?”

He said, “I don’t think that’s going to happen for a while.”

I said, “Why?”

He said, “Well, sometimes people don’t feel comfortable visiting other churches.”

I said, “I feel comfortable.”

He said, “I know you do. Someday you will feel real comfortable and all of us will.”

I said, “Bartholomew, you’ve got, you’ve got your kids?”

He said, “Oh, yah, I do”

“So what do you guys do at home?”

He said, “We sing and we dance and we have fun.”

I said, ‘I’d like to come there.”

He said, “Well, someday, maybe.”

“I’ve got my verse.” And I told him.

His broom stopped right at the end of the verse and he said, ‘Well, MaryGay, that’s quite a verse.” That’s all he said.

The day before, on Saturday, the men met again and said, “I hear they’re coming pretty soon.” I wasn’t sure what that meant.

The next day, we lined up and sat on the edge, the edge of a stage, that functioned as a kind of an altar for us. Dressed in our Joseph’s Coats of Many Colors, crinkling and snapping, holding little cups of Kool-Aid, and praying, truly, that we wouldn’t drop them. And rehearsing our verses. Piggy, his verse was, “Thine appetite shall smite thee like a knife.” Kay Mullet’s was, “Patience in all things.” And then of course, there was the requisite, “Jesus wept.” And then, mine. I was about to say it. It was a hot day. It’s always hot in New Orleans. And the doors are closed. When there was a welcome, welcome breeze. The doors at the back, whoosh, had opened. And they had arrived. They were there, in my church. First standing, right at the front entrance, and then, very quietly coming in, coming in. It was Bartholomew and all his children.

And he said, “Be sure to let a stranger in. If you don’t, then you miss an angel unawares.”

And they began to sing, “Wade in the water. Wade in the water. Wade in the water, children. You, wade in the water. Wade in the water. God’s gonna trouble the water.

People started to get up and talk among themselves. My dad stood up as if to go, and then, Bartholomew put his hands up and he said, “There are many, many mansions. Many mansions in his kingdom. Many.” And his children, all dress so beautifully, turned and Bartholomew turned. And he looked out into the faces of the congregation looking, to find his place, in the House of the Lord.

IN BELFAST

By Storyteller LOREN NIEMI

 

 

Story Summary:

 Loren travels to North Ireland and is continually asked, “Are you Catholic or Protestant?” By the way that question is asked and answered, layers of cultural assumptions are revealed.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: In-Belfast

Discussion Questions:

  1.  What is the fundamental assumption contained in asking, “Are you Catholic or Protestant?”
  2. What is the function of the joke in the context of the story and in relation to the larger issue of identity?
  3. How and why do people need to shed the assumptions of culture to “wage peace” or reconcile after loss?

Resources:

  • Lost Lives by David McKittrick, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeley and Chris Thornton
  • Religion, Identity and Politics in Northern Ireland: Boundaries of Belonging and Belief by Claire Mitchell and Aldershot Ashgate   – Helping People Forgive, David W. Augsburger

Themes:

  •  Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Identity
  • Interfaith
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
  • War

Full Transcript:

This is Loren Niemi.

In 2005 and 2007, every time I go to Belfast, and I’ve been to Belfast a couple of times, it’s always the same thing. I’m always introduced the same way. I’m introduced as, “This is our American friend.” And the first time it happened, I was kind of curious about why, or why that particular greeting. And they said, “Well, it’s a way of sidestepping the dance.” And I realized that, when upon observation, that in fact, in every conversation in Belfast, the first few minutes, there’s this gentle probing. No one really wants to ask directly. But there’s this little probing about, where do you live or where did you go to school? Or, you know, and it’s all about geography. What they really want to know is, are you Catholic or Protestant? And geography tells you whether you’re Catholic or Protestant, most of the time. And what they really want to know is, not only are you Catholic or Protestant, but, but where you are in relationship to the history and the nuance of the troubles?

Thirty-seven years of war based on religion and, as they say, 10 years of waging peace. And that’s what they call it, “waging peace.” And still no government they trust. And every conversation is about the same thing. It all begins the same way. Are you Catholic or Protestant? Now, me, I’m standing there and I’m looking at the city. And what I’m seeing is a city that pretty much looks the same regardless of where you are. And people who very much look the same, you know. They sound the same. They, they do the same jobs. They, they wear the same clothes. I cannot tell the difference between Protestant and Catholic.

But it’s interesting. I’m looking at a street. And on each side of the street, there are three story brick, row houses. Now, in some neighborhoods, it’s real clear because there are murals on the walls, right. Bobby Sands and the Hunger Strikers. Well, that’s an IRA, Catholic neighborhood. Or the end of a row of flats, you, you get, um, the Provos with their rifles and their masks. And you go, oh, this is a Protestant neighborhood. But most of the time it’s more subtle. You have to look at things like the curbs. Orange curbs in the Protestant neighborhoods and, and green curbs in the Papist neighborhoods, you know. And what I mean, is one side of the street is orange and the other side of the street is green. And these are not wide streets. So, sometimes when I would be asked, directly, eventually someone would say, “”Well, are you Catholic are or you Protestant?”

You know, I would say, “I’m Buddhist.”

And one guy he looks at me and there’s a pause. And then he says, “Well, would that be a Catholic Buddhist or Protestant Buddhist?” And we would laugh and it would be funny. It would be funny…except for the suffering and the death. Because that’s what I had come to Belfast for was to, you know, work on the reconciliation. To work on hearing the stories of suffering and death. And it made no difference whether you are Catholic or Protestant. There was suffering and death on both sides.

And when you hear the stories, when they all come out, when you’ve got a roomful of people and you get down to, “How did you survive? What did you do?” You know, we find the common humanity. Every story might begin, or every introduction, might begin with, “Are you a Protestant or a Catholic?” But if there’s any hope for the future, if there’s any hope for reconciliation, it can’t end there.

MILWAUKEE B-B-Q

By Storyteller LOREN NIEMI

 

Story Summary:

 Loren who is white goes to a BBQ place in an all black neighborhood and comes to understand prejudice in a direct and personal way.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Milwaukee-B-B-Q

Discussion Questions:

  1. How does prejudice play out in the day to day in this story?
  2. What role do the police play in this story and what role do the police play n your cultural experience?
  3. When have you found yourself to be the wrong person by virtue of color, religion, ethnic origin or sexual identity in an uncomfortable circumstance?

Resources:

  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • Civil Rights Activism in Milwaukee: South Side Struggles in the 60’s and ’70’s by Paul Geenen

Themes:

  •  African American/Black History
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Identity
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

I’m Loren Niemi.

In the summer of 1968, I was in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I was working with a bunch of Catholic Worker folks, at a place called Casa Maria. Anti-war, war on poverty, you know. It was all the same black, white, Latino, Irish immigrants, interestingly enough, Jesuits, we were all in it together.

So, this one day, ah, this big, black, teddy bear of a guy, Tommy, comes up to me and he says, “Hey are you interested in some barbecue?”

And I said, “Yeah, I love barbecue. So, so, we get in the car and we drive to this place, a little bit west of 28th Street. It’s not a good neighborhood. It was, ah, after Martin Luther King’s assassination and you could see the effects. Vacant lots of burned out buildings. There was a rundown house just across from where we parked. Ah, kids sitting on the steps, nothing to do, idle, as if the house was collapsing around them. The barbecue joint itself was done in post-Wright architectural style. I mean, you know, bricked up front, little tiny window space up on the top, covered with chain link fence. There was um, ah, this steel plate door with “Barbecue,” kind of like graffiti on it.

We walk inside. Inside in the back, there’s a pool table, five, six guys shooting pool, drinking beer. Couple of tables back there. Up front there’s a counter. There’s a menu on a piece of cardboard, “Barbecue, rib tips, chicken, collard greens.” A guy standing behind the counter.

I go up. I, I say, “Can I have a half slab of ribs?”

He turns around and looks at me. Looks at me, long and hard he says, “Are you sure you’re in the right place?”

I look at him. I look around, “I think so. Ah. I want some BBQ. This is a barbecue place. I think I’m in the right place.”

All of a sudden, he, he reaches out with a pair of tongs and he snaps them at me and he says, “Are you sure you are in the right place? Look around. What do you see?”

“Barbecue sign. Beer sign. Some guys in the back, shooting pool.”

“Those guys in the back. What color are they?”

There’s a moment of hesitation. I’m thinking. OK, so let’s say negro. No, definitely not negro. African-American. Well, maybe. But the problem is, is that’s really not a color. Black. I guess that’s where we’re at. So, I go, ‘Black.”

And he says, “Ya. And what color are you?”

“Oh, I don’t know, tan, pink, white.” And he looks at me. And I go, “I’m with him,” pointing to Tommy.

And he says, “Oh, he may be in the right place but that doesn’t mean you in the right place.”

About this time, all the guys in the back had stopped shooting pool. They stopped drinking beer. They’re all looking our way.

And Tommy says to me, “Go wait in the car.” So, I do. I go outside. I get in the car. I roll down the window. I light up a cigarette. I’m sitting there, I’m smoking. I’m looking and I’m thinking, for the first time in my life, I was the wrong color. For the first time in my life, I was the guy who was in the wrong place. The, you know, the one who didn’t belong. Who didn’t know what the rules were. Who didn’t know who I was or what was expected.

About this time, a, a bus comes by. The driver’s white but every face behind him, that, all the windows are black. A car goes by, white guy behind the wheel. I can even, even from where I’m sitting I can see his white knuckles. I can see him staring straight ahead. I know his doors are locked. I know his windows are up. He’s riding on fear through the neighborhood. He doesn’t know if he’s lost or just trying to get out.

And I think to myself, “You know, this is a one-time thing. I mean, I can just walk out of the neighborhood and this will go away. But for those kids, those kids sitting on the stoop across the way this is every day. Every time they walk into a room and the white faces turn to them, you know, and go, ‘What are you doing here?’ ”

About this, about this time, Tommy comes to the car and he gets in and he laugh and he says, “You almost got me in a lot of trouble in there.”

“How did I get you in trouble? I’m the guy who wasn’t supposed to be there.”

“They all wanted to know, what I was doing with a dumb, white honky like you. And I told them I was going to rob you and they all approved.”

“Tommy, are you going to rob me?”

“Well, you’re paying for the Q.” And so, we start the engine. We start to drive away.

We don’t get more than a block, when, when a squad car comes the other direction. A squad car comes and he slows down as we pass. He looks at us. A black guy and a white guy in the car together. And he just circles right around and drops in right behind us. And I expect to get lit up at any moment. And Tommy says, “You got any outstanding warrants?”

And I go, “Not that I’m aware of.”

And he says, “He’s running our plates. You know, you got any trouble, he’s stopping us.”

I keep looking in the rearview mirror. I keep looking in the rearview mirror. After a couple of blocks, the cop turns off and we drive a little further. We pull into a city park. We’re just getting out of the car when another squad car pulls in. The cop in that squad car, he looks at us getting out of the car with our bag of barbecue and he motions, “Move on, move on.” So, we get back in the car.

And we start to drive. One mile, two miles, we have to go out into a county park on the edge of the city before, you know, before we can sit down and eat. We don’t even get out of the car. We just roll down the windows and let the sound of nature, kind of, filter in, and we have barbecue and collard greens. And we think to ourselves, how long will it be before this is taken for granted?

ONARA

by Storyteller ALTON CHUNG

 

Story Summary:

This is a true story written by Mako Nakagawa and told by Alton with her permission. A young girl wonders about the difference between “hakujin” (white people) and “nihonjin” (Japanese people) while in an internment camp in WWII. She speculates as to why hakujin do not onara (a euphemism for “passing gas”).

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  Onara

Discussion Questions:

  1. You have been ordered to move out of your house in two weeks and can only take one suitcase weighing 50 pounds. You will be gone for an unknown period of time for an unknown destination. There are no stores where you are going, no Internet or cell phone or cable service, and very little electricity. What will you take with you?
  2. Meals in the camps were served in large mess halls like the cafeteria in your school. What would be the advantages and disadvantages of serving meals in this way? How would you feel about eating in a cafeteria for all of your meals for the next year?
  3. The incarceration (internment) camps were surrounded by guard towers, barbed wire fences, and soldiers with rifles. Do you think such measures were necessary? Why were they implemented? How would you feel if you had to live under those conditions?  How do you think it would change you?

 Resources:

  • Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki
  • Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America’s Concentration Camps by Michi Weglyn.

Themes:

  • Asian American/Asians
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Identity
  • War

Full Transcript:

Hello. My name is Alton Takiyama-Chung.  The story I have for you is called “Onara.” It was written by a woman by the name of Mako Nakagawa. It is with her permission that I can tell it. It’s in a collection of stories that I call “Kodomo No Tame Ni.”  (For the Sake of the Children) Now, “Onara.”

For the first five years of my life, I grew up in Seattle and I was surrounded by friends and family, mostly Japanese people. See, we were Nipponjin, Japanese people, and I didn’t know much about white people or know very many of them. We called them Hakujin. And I knew there were differences between us Nipponjin and the Hakujin. I mean, they were foreign, “strange,” and very large!

Most of what I knew about Hakujins came from magazines or movies.  I mean, they were filled with Hakujin people.  But even as a child I knew that the Hakujins were the ones with the power. That became very evident when they came and took my dad and threw him in jail, after Pearl Harbor.  And again when they took me and the rest of my family and put us in Camp Harmony in Puyallup, Washington in 1942. Later in Minidoka, Idaho and Crystal City, Texas.

All the teachers and all the guards were all Hakujins. We learned to be wary of them. One day about a dozen of us second graders were all gathered together making a sound of onara. Oh, we were having a wonderful time, making all these wonderful sounds using our hands and our fingers and our lips. We knew if the adults caught us, we would be in big trouble, but it was so much fun being naughty.

Each kid had a different sound and we critiqued each sound. we tried to imagine what kind of person would make that kind of sound. And then, Akira made what we considered to be, hands down, the best onara sound ever. We fell on the ground laughing, our sides were hurting. You know, “onara?” (Sound made through blowing in hands that sounds like gas.)  “Onara!” And then one kid said, “How come the Hakujin don’t onara? Huh?”

Hmm. Half of us thought they did. Half of us thought they didn’t. I always wondered what it would be like, not to onara. One person said, “No no, no, they have to, they are human beings!”

“Oh yeah, if they did, wouldn’t they have an English word for it?”

“Yeah . . Hmm.” Since none of us could come up with an English word for onara, we concluded the Hakujins didn’t do it. Then my friend Janet said she thought she heard one coming from her teacher, but she wasn’t sure because her teacher moved her chair at the same time. Hmm, inconclusive. I mean, who could we ask?

The only Hakujins we knew were our teachers and the guards, and we didn’t think it was a really good idea to ask them anything. It seemed strange to me that they wouldn’t have an English word for onara. I knew there were differences between us, but we weren’t that different. I decided to ask my mom, see what she thought. My mom, she looked at me, and then she smiled and said she had no idea. I don’t think she wanted to know the Hakujins that well.

Anyway, one day, again, I was playing with my best friend Janet, and the whole idea came up again. We finally concluded that onara was the result of what you ate. Logical! And we knew that the Hakujins ate differently than us. Therefore, the Hakujin food must not produce onara. But when I was in camp, I ate a lot of Hakujin food and I still onara. I never discovered the non-onara-producing Hakujin diet, but I did discover the meanings for certain key phrases, such as “angel whispers,” “breaking wind,” and “cutting the cheese!” Hakujins did do it! That’s when I realized, maybe we’re not so different after all.

LOOKING FOR PAPITO

by Storyteller Antonio Sacre

 

Story Summary:

 As a Cuban and Irish American child, Antonio deals with being “too ethnic” or “not ethnic enough”. By trial and error and with the support of his family, Antonio reclaims all of his ethnic heritage and his Spanish language.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Looking-for-Papito

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you think Antonio is white or brown? What does he think he is?
  2. What could Antonio have done when he was teased about speaking Spanish? Have you ever hidden parts of your cultural background to “fit in”?
  3. Does each group who comes to this country eventually lose its culture? What is gained and what is lost from assimilation?

Resources:

  •  How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent by Julia Alvarez
  • America Is Her Name by Luis J. Rodriquez 

Themes:

  • Crossing Cultures
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Identity
  • Languages
  • Latino American/Latinos
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name is Antonio Sacre and this is an excerpt from a longer story called Looking for Papito. Spanish …When my father left Cuba he didn’t speak any English at all … and when he came to the United States he met a woman who didn’t speak any Spanish at all … and the two got married. And they had me. That meant I grew up speaking Spanish with my father and English with my mother.

Now I was born it was just me — and life was perfect and on my very first birthday my mom and dad gave me twin baby brothers. My mom was up to her ears. My dad said, “Three boys in one year that’s the man that I am you know!”

We were a handful for my parents of course, and so my dad did what very many other Cuban men would do in the same situation he called his mother. Spanish. My Cuban grandmother came to live with us. We were growing up in Delaware at that time. And so, in my house our first language — my two brothers and I — was Spanish. So, we

spoke Spanish with my dad, Spanish with my grandmother and of course we learnt English from my mom and we all learnt each other’s languages.

Now, it’s typical in Cuban families for the first-born male to have the nickname – Papito … and I was given that nickname by my grandmother Papito. It means little man … little boy. But in my family, it reminded her of my grandfather who died right after they came from Cuba and so it was honor to have his name. And when we got out of diapers my grandmother moved back to little Havana in Miami Florida.

 

Now my first day of kindergarten I was five years old. I was so excited to go to school to get out of the house with those two other boys and my mom was sad and my dad was happy — “my boy was going to school you know”.

I get to this school and I see all those kids and I am nervous and excited and I looked at them and I spoke in my first language I said … Spanish … And the kids looked at me and said — what? — Spanish … And my teacher … she was very sweet … and she said, “Honey nobody speaks Spanish here we only speak English”.

“Oh, that’s OK I speak English too.”

“Hi everyone, my name is Papito.” And one boy in the back said “Pa-Papido sounds like Dorido!” “No, no its Papito” “No, no its Dorido!”

Now he is just a five year old having fun with the nickname that he never heard before, but obviously I didn’t like it so much. I went home and spoke to my dad. Now if you don’t speak Spanish don’t worry I will translate what I said but this is what I said … Spanish … and my dad said … Spanish… I told my dad I didn’t want the Cuban nickname that my grandmother gave me I didn’t care it was part of the family I wanted to be called a more American sounding name I wanted to be called Tony. My dad said okay.

A couple of days after he dropped me off at school and he said “Adios Papit..aa, Tony adios” “OK Papa, Adios”

And one of those kids is in the playground … he was maybe third or fourth grader — he looked like a giant … he came up to me and he said, “What was that language you were speaking?” “Spanish.” “Sounds stupid.” “Are you stupid?”

I didn’t know what to say and I went home I did what I lot of other kids do from immigrant families I said … Spanish … I never want to speak Spanish again” … Spanish … “No from now on — only English.” And when my father spoke to me in Spanish I answered back to him in English. And after a while he spoke to me in Spanish. I pretended like I didn’t understand until he only spoke to me in English and little by little my first language was slipping away.

And when I turned eight my parents got divorced… there is a long story behind that part of … with their cultural background and part of the way it just the way it worked. And so, my dad moved out and I didn’t have anyone to speak Spanish with anymore.

But it didn’t matter to me everyone at school spoke English. Everything on TV was in English. Movies were in English. My grandmother was in Miami and maybe I’d see a couple of times a year maximum. And the older I got by the time I got into the high school it didn’t matter to me that I didn’t know any Spanish.

Now in my first day of history class…American history in high school … I will never forget the teacher was reading roll call. He said, “Antonio Bernardo Sacre who’s that?” “Ah…that’s me but…my name is Tony” “What kind of a name is this??” “Well its Cuban” and the whole class turned and looked at me and I said “I am not Cuban. I am American. I was born here. My father, he’s Cuban” he said, “Oh yeah…where is your mother from?” “Well she is an Irish American” what kind of a combination is that?” and the whole class laughed – he was just, you know being funny. It was okay.

Now, at lunch there was a kid who came up to me and said “You are a Cuban and Irish huh? I guess that it makes you a spic – mick – or maybe a “mick-spic”. And soon in my school that’s the nickname that I got even though I had long ago stopped speaking Spanish, even though I fell and looked as white looking as everyone in that high school, that’s what I became known as — I was the “other” in my high school.

Now, what was happening at the time was there is the movie “Scarface” had come out and there is the stereotype that all Cubans were drug dealers and bad and was just this odd thing was happening.

Lucky for me my grandmother wanted to see me this summer after my first year of high school. And my brother was there that whole summer and when I got in to her house (in Miami) and she saw me she threw her arms around me with a beautiful hug. I was so happy to see her and she started speaking and I couldn’t understand her.

And she said … Spanish … she’s screaming at me yelling at me and my brother said “What’s the matter? You can’t speak … you gotta talk Spanish with your grandmother.” The whole family is in a big consternation yelling at me and my grandmother said …Spanish … “You need to learn how to speak Spanish.” So every day she would sit me down and drill words into me tell me stories about my dad.

And every night … not every night… but every now and then my brother and I would go out to these big Cuban dance parties. He knew the salsa and dances. He could dance with all these girls I would be dancing by myself. Whenever we walked down the street the old Cuban men would say to my brother…. Spanish … “You speak Spanish perfect what’s the matter with your brother? He needs to learn Spanish you know!”

And soon in that little Havana neighborhood in my family I was called … “El gringo de la Familia‟ …the Gringo of the family…they were calling me names and my family — the gringo of the family. And so it was odd for me because I don’t fit in with my family. I don’t fit in my high school. I didn’t know what was going on you know and by the end of the summer.

I was jealous of my brother because his Spanish is perfect he looks more Cuban if there’s such a thing. I couldn’t understand my uncles when they are telling jokes with my grandmother, and I said in my halting Spanish “I don’t feel very Cuban in this family” and she said, “You are never gonna be fully Cuban or American” she said “You are Cuban American.” And she said you have to speak Spanish with me because I am too old to learn English and you have to speak English in this country.

And at that point I realized that it was worse to be called gringo in my family than to be called names in the school I didn’t really care about. And so I tried the best I could that summer to accept the gain as much of that language as I could. And sat with my grandmother while she told stories of the family she told me jokes — some silly, some a little racy, some beautiful little stories.

Some of the jokes became basis of the stories that I tell now all these years later. One is just a little joke — a “barking mouse”. There is a cat who chases a family of mice and the mother barks at the cat and the cat runs away and she says, “You see kids it pays to speak another language.”

And I think about my grandmother every time I think about that little silly beautiful message about the importance of speaking another language.

And I went back to my school proud to be the school’s only Cuban Irish American. There’s one of my friends who calls me – a “Leprachano”. And so now I embrace both parts of it. And I still am not fully Cuban in little Havana — and I am still not fully whatever American means or … whatever the words you would say… but I am somewhere in between the both. And I know now, in all my travels around the country, there are many, many other people just like me and we have lots to learn from both sides. And that is just the part I wanted to do.

JOHN HENRY

By Storyteller Jim May

 

Story Summary:

 This is a true story set in rural McHenry County, Illinois in the 1920s and 1930s about John Henry Higler, a man who claimed to be former slave who assimilated into an all white farm community.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: John-Henry

Discussion Questions:

  1. Can you imagine living and working in a community where there was no one who shared your background and “race”?
  2. Do you think this account of John Henry being a beloved member of a white farming community in the early part of the 20th century is hopeful or simply a story that whites told to assuage their guilt about white privilege?
  3. Have you ever gone to a graveyard and imagined the stories behind the people buried there?

 

Resources:

 

Themes:

  •  African American/Black History
  • Crossing Cultures
  • European American/Whites
  • Identity

Full Transcript:

I grew up in Spring Grove, IL, a little German Catholic farming community about 60 miles northwest of Chicago. And my family has been there for about five generations; they came probably in the 1840’s.

Growing up, I had heard off and on the story of, it seemed to me perhaps like a legend at that time, of a black man buried somewhere in Spring Grove in one of the cemeteries. And there was talk that he had been held in slavery in some time in his life in Tennessee. I probably forgot about that story for years and years. But when I got interested in family history and storytelling, I started digging around a little bit and came across the very person to come across, an 80-year-old man, Tommy Madden, who had been one of my father’s best friends. And Tommy and another acquaintance of his, Jim Holderman, had known this gentleman from Tennessee.

They all referred to him as John Henry, which of course is ironic: John Henry is the mythical hero of black American folklore who won the race with the steam hammer and maybe that’s why John Henry took his name. I’m not sure, but he had come out to Spring Grove, a little side-tracked town, come off of Chicago apparently.

In fact, the story was that he had left Tennessee, either been emancipated at the end of the Civil War perhaps or had escaped, no one knew for sure. But he had come out to Chicago, which makes some sense. But he had told everybody that he met in Spring Grove that he found things too “sportin’” in Chicago.

So he was looking for a quieter place, and he found the right place: in Spring Grove there wasn’t much sporting going on. Nearly 200 people and four taverns and two churches, that was about it. But he worked for farmers there; he was a hired hand, a live-in hired hand. And he found one family, the Stevens family, that particularly took an interest in him, and he lived with that family and worked with that family for years and years.

In fact, he worked often in the farm house helping Mrs. Stevens, and the story was Mrs. Stevens said she just couldn’t part with John Henry, that she would send her husband down the road before she let go of John Henry. He was so helpful to her, he loved children. There was a story that he would sit around the big dining room table, big farm family, and he always liked sitting next to the baby. He liked feeding the baby. And he would read the newspaper; he couldn’t read, but he would hold the newspaper and make up the story. One of the boys, the youngest, I was told by his brother, just wouldn’t go to sleep, wouldn’t go to bed, until John Henry helped him take his boots and shoes off and got him ready for bed.

But there was more of the story, of course. Things couldn’t have been easy for John living out there, the only black man for miles around. I remember this one story where they had a threshing and there were some day laborers hired from out of community to work. There was extra work to do when the grains had to be threshed, and a couple of these fellows were up high on a straw stack and they saw John below, maybe working on the machine, maybe oiling the machine, doing some kind of work beneath them, and they got the oil can and they squirted some oil on him as a joke.

I remember Tommy Madden saying, “John didn’t complain, he never wanted to bother anybody.” Of course, that was the internalized reality of being a slave: if you bothered someone, that might mean your life, your family might be sold down the river. But when the boss, the man who owned the farm found out about it, as they gathered around this big, incredible spread of food for the threshing crews, when the boss Mr. Stevens found out, he fired the two day laborers on the spot after what they had done because they humiliated John.

And old Tommy, who was 88-years-old, told me that story. I remember he was sitting on his couch there on a February afternoon and he had bib overalls on, and he was telling me that story about these two fellows that humiliated John being fired and he kind of raised his fist. I remember that he had a kind of gun metal blue nail on his fist and I remember him punctuating his word and saying, “That was the end of those fellows for what they did to John.”

“He felt a sense of justice there. I think perhaps the uniqueness of having someone who had been once held in slavery, the uniqueness of having a black man in the community, there was a certain deference paid to John. But I remember also hearing my relatives say that he would dance with the girls at church functions, and some of them wouldn’t like that.

He, even with the Stevens family whom he loved and they loved him, they would ask him to come into the front room after dinner in the kitchen, and, no, he would always sit alone in his rocking chair in the kitchen, not in the front room. Things must have been lonely for him, but the story of course was fascinating, and when I heard Tommy that day, that February day when I got this story from Tommy, he said, “I know where he is buried.”

This was new information to me. I heard he was buried somewhere in the county line, but I never met anyone who knew where he was buried. Tommy said he’s in the old cemetery on Wilmot Road. Down along the fence line, over in the north east corner, you’ll find John’s grave.

On that February day I said goodbye to Tommy and left Wilmot, Wisconsin and drove along Wilmot Road looking for the cemetery and found it of course. I knew where the cemetery was. But I walked back and forth, back and forth amongst those grave stones that late February afternoon and did not find the John Henry grave.

And thinking about his life and even so far away from anything that would have been a familiar experience for him of being a helping hand in slavery in Tennessee, far away from family, there was no family that anyone knew of, and I thought, finally, now, his grave is gone too. Even the memory was gone, kind of punctuating the loneliness of his life or that aspect of that life.

And I literally had given up looking for the tombstone and was heading back to my car, I almost stumbled on it. You know, how you give up looking for something and you find it? There at my feet was a very proper granite stone. I knew he had died in the county home and, so, I had already concluded that perhaps there was no marker at all. Perhaps a wooden cross that had rotted or nothing to mark his grave, but there it was: a very proper granite stone that said John Henry Higgler, and he died in 1947, the same year that my grandpa died.

The best of my memory was 1947, there on the stone. There was no birthday, because there was often no birthdays recorded for slaves, but there was a very proper stone and in front of that stone was a bright red, fairly new plastic flower.

And it occurred to me that those people who lived up there in that prairie, the English prairie, north of Spring Grove, had found a way to transcend race and culture and geography, and the monument to that connection that was made across all those challenges was that red rose, that red plastic rose that was there on that cold February day.

And perhaps that’s kind of a metaphor for our country, our culture. Racism is solid still, frozen like the ground was that February day. But here and there we see these patches of red, these signs of life and flowering. Thinking about it, now with the last presidential election, we have kind of a garland in a snow bank, you know we got Obama in the white house. That’s why they call it the White House, I guess. I don’t know. So, it’s still there in the old cemetery, John Henry, if you want to go, if you want to go check out the grave.

CHANGING NEIGHBORHOODS

by Storyteller Susan O’Halloran

 

Story Summary:

 Sue grew up hearing about “them” – the people who would come and take her and her neighbors’ homes in their all-white neighborhood. When her family watched the Friday night fights, it was made clear who was “the other” and who was “us.”

 For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Changing-Neighborhoods

Discussion Questions:

  1. What activities did your family take part in that brought you closer together?
  2. To what “us” (or us-es) were you told, verbally or non-verbally, you belonged?
  3. Who were the “them”(or thems) when you were growing up?
  4. How did you make sense of racial dislike when you were younger?
  5. Were there areas of life where your community or family acted as though they were under attack?
  6. In what areas of life did/does your community or family take pride?

Resources:

  • American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass by Douglas S. Massy and Nancy A. Denton
  • The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation by Natalie Y. Moore

Themes:

  • African American/Black History
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Housing
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination

Full Transcript:

My family, we love to be on the winning team. Oh, we loved our sports. But no sport was watched as consistently, as, as devoutly, I’d say as religiously, as the Friday night fights. Awe, this was a great tradition in my family. My grandparents, who lived with us, came to live with us when I was six years old. They brought their tradition with them that you bet on the Friday night fights. Every Friday afternoon my grandma would show up with a hat, little folded pieces of paper, you put a quarter in, you picked out that piece of paper and have a number written on it. And that number stood for a round if there was a knockout in your round, you won the pot. You got the prize. Now, the Friday night fights in my house were very interactive, and I don’t mean that the adults just sat on the couch and yelled at the TV once in a while. No, I mean, they were up on their feet and in the ring with the boxers. Swinging, punching, taking blows, I mean, grunting away, yelling at the ref of course. “Awe, he hit below the belt, the ref needs new glasses! We were robbed!” And then, ding, the round would end and the adults would fall back on the couch, in true exhaustion. My brother and I would show up with the those towels. We’d pat their head, we’d give him sips of water and we pull on their teeth. Now we didn’t really know about mouth guards but we see the trainers do something with the boxer’s teeth. And then, ding, they’d be back on their feet and swinging. And my grandpa he’d point to us kids and say, “You, you could be a champion. Boxing is the game where poor kids become kings.” I loved those games for the fun, everybody was having. But actually, the game itself kind of scared me. And nobody seemed to answer my questions. I’d say to the adults, “Well, like, how can their mom and dad play the game if they could get so hurt?” And when the adults laugh and they point to me and say, “Because they’re making a lot of money, honey.” Well, we are making some money on the game if you won the bet, you know so that made some amount of sense.

Now all the adults, they also made side bets on who they thought would win the game. And the betting went like this. Vote for the white guy, if it was white against black.  Vote for the Mexican or the Cuban Boxer who is brown against black. And it was two black boxers vote for the light skinned man. Now there was this lot of hatred where I grew up and there was… it was all for one reason it seemed to me because this is what I heard about all the time when I was growing up, that there was a fight over turf, a fight over our houses. All the time I was growing up, it was like I was surrounded by this kind of ambush talk, this war mentality. I would sit on the front porches of 84th Street and I would hear things like, “Do you think Halsted Avenue will hold. I hear they took 63rd Street. All the time I was growing up, white people who had lived east of us in what they called changing neighborhoods, flooded into our parish like refugees from war, exiled from their parish. And night after night we would sit on the front porches of 84th Street and we would hear these new arrivals weep for their old parishes. But how they missed their skating parties or their championship volleyball team, the Holy Name Society they belong to, the altar guilds.

And once in a while I would drive with the ladies downtown, to go shop at Marshall Fields Department store.  And when we would cross that line, the colored line, from the all white neighborhood to the all black neighborhood. One of the ladies, who would come from one of changing neighborhoods, she might say, “Oh I, I wanta go see the old house and drive in. And we’d turn the corner, they’d say “Here it is.” And we’d turn the corner and they would be…  burnt out building, a boarded up building, no building at all. And the ladies would sit there and they’d cry and they’d tell it how it used to be in the old neighborhood. Their mothers, their dads, how the neighbors were so good to each other. Now, nobody explained to us why this had happened. About the real estate blockbusting, about how the banks had red-lined the neighborhoods. We never heard the reason why. It was just, this is what black people had done.

And you think they would they would have known something more about this. Maybe people didn’t think it through because they would tell us how they get calls in the middle of the night. Before they move, people would get calls from strangers terrifying them. They’d say things like, “You better get out now. Get out now while you still can. While, while your kids are still safe. While you can still get a good price for your house.”  And people had pledged each other,  this what they do in the old neighborhoods, when they’d say, “Our neighborhood is going to hold. If we don’t move out they can’t move in.” But you keep getting these calls the night. People would sneak out under cover of night. They’d make their deal with the real estate agent and then they’d sneak out. And they told us how they would wake up, you know, one morning they had been talking just the night before with their neighbor over the fence about the pot roast cooked for dinner, about the new tulips they were growing, and they’d wake up the next morning and their neighbors of 40 years would be gone. I mean, they had just left and a colored family had moved in under cover of night. And the ladies would weep about this and tell us and we would drive on. But then they try to reassure us they’d say, “Oh this won’t happen to us. Our neighborhood is going to hold.  We love it too much.” As if loving your neighborhood is what could save it.

And people did love their neighborhoods. I got to tell you, people would work all day and come home and wash their sidewalks in the summer. People would wash the outside of their houses. I’m lucky sometimes, after a day of work, I can get the dirty dishes out of the sink. But they would wash the inside and the outside of those houses. And how they took care of those lawns. I grew up with the Southwest Side of Chicago version of the American Gothic. Husband and wife standing next to each other, grass clippers in hand. Just staring ahead, daring a blade of grass to grow. And they would dig these moats. I mean, these bordered ditches around those lawns so that not one blade of grass would escape and make contact with the sidewalk. People loved those small bungalow houses, those postage stamp sized lawns. That said you were somebody. That said you took care of your family, your whole family. Because not only were most of our moms working at home back then, but we had aunts and uncles and grandmas and grandpas all living with us. This multigenerational households, keeping an eye out for us kids.

The good news is I had hundreds of parents. Bad news is I had hundreds of parents. But we all belonged to in St. Thomas Moore Parish. We all belonged on 84th Street. But I was told some people would not belong. They would come and take our house. They would come and they would make us leave. Well, don’t worry kids.  Our neighborhood will hold. But deep inside I think we knew, we were only shadowboxing. Because deep inside, in the tone of that voice, I could hear that it was hopeless. Black people were going to do us in.  It was a fight. It was a fight to the finish. It was us against them.

 

LOOKING AT MY YEARBOOKS

by Storyteller Shanta Nurullah

 

Story Summary:

Looking at high school yearbooks, Shanta reflects on the “change” in her neighborhood from mostly white to all black. As a child, Shanta could not understand when the adults told her “the white people are running away from us”. Even as an adult with a larger understanding of the times – blockbusting and other societal and economic pressures – the sting of being “the other” remains.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  Looking-at-My-Yearbooks

Discussion Questions:

  1. What stories can photo albums or school yearbooks tell you about the people in your family or neighborhood?
  2. How do you feel when you realize that someone doesn’t like you?
  3. What keeps you strong when you’re in uncomfortable situations?
  4. How does your family influence your ideas and feelings about people from different backgrounds or cultures?

Resources:

  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • The Bluest Eye by Tony Morrison
  • Seed Folks by Paul Fleischman

Themes:

  • African American/Black History
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Housing
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination

Full Transcript:

As a child, I was fascinated with high school yearbooks. I would study my mother’s yearbooks from the 1940s, the Inglewood High School books. I really enjoyed seeing how she and her friends looked when they were teenagers. And I would also become real familiar with the most popular, best dressed, the cheerleaders, the guys on the TV. I mean, you would have thought they were personal friends of mine. So when we moved in our new house and Frank, next door, was going to high school and he brought his yearbook home, I couldn’t wait to see it. Now, his sister, Marcia was my friend and she would have to sneak the book out of the house and then we would spend hours looking at it noticing that Frank was one of the few black students at Hirsche.  But we also took time to learn the cheerleaders, the guys on the team, the captain of the debate team.

Now, race consciousness was not so unusual for eight-year-olds at that time. I mean, we moved into this new neighborhood. There were lots of white people on the block. But the very next year, they were all gone. And the adult conversations, I mean we couldn’t help but hear, the tones when people would talk about how when they moved into the new house, so many things were broken or destroyed. And that had been done by the previous owners who just had some kind of resentment or something about these people who were moving in. And then there were the warnings to not let yourself get caught at night or by whites, passed Ashland and then passed Damen and then passed Western. They would talk about how white people kept running away from us. Why would they run away from us? We were good people. We went to church. We mowed our grass. Why would they run away?

Two years after we moved, my brother went to Hirsch. And when I saw his yearbooks, there were, lots more white…, lots more black kids in the books and fewer whites. That meant that there were fewer white kids who were studying with and playing alongside my brother. And by the time I got to Hirsch, there were only three white faces that peered out of those pages. And those three kids were all from the same family. My child mind wondered what was wrong with us? Why were people running away from us?

I now know that it was fear. People were scared, not necessarily just because we were who we were, but they were getting phone calls late at night by realtors and insurance agents warning them that they had to get out of the neighborhood. I now know that there was nothing wrong with us. That there is nothing wrong with us.  But…that little girl, she felt the sting. She felt the hurt of people running away. And even now when I travel around the country to places near and far, tell these stories… if I mention that I’m from the South Side of Chicago, invariably some well-meaning person will come up to me and say I’m from the south side too. And as I ask why and where, while they’re telling me how they lived in and moved away from the South Shore, Roselyn, or Chadham, in my mind, I can’t help but think. Yeah, yours was one of those families that ran away from us. And the child who still lives inside of me, she’s still hurt.

GRANDMA’S STORY

By Storyteller Susan O’Halloran

 

Story Summary:

 After her Grandmother passes, Sue searches for her Grandmother’s story. Her exploration takes her into Irish American history and, eventually, to Ireland to find her Grandmother’s childhood home.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Grandmas-Story

Discussion Questions:

  1. Have you ever interviewed a family member to collect family stories? Is there someone in your family you wish you had talked to more who is no longer with us?
  2. How would you feel if you had to support a family who lived somewhere else?
  3. Why did the British hate the Irish? How do groups who are Insiders justify their exclusion of the Outsider?
  4. Do you think it’s a positive or negative thing that so many groups lost their culture in becoming American?

Resource:

  • The Irish Americans: A History by Jay P. Dolan

Themes:

  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Immigration
  • Living and Traveling Abroad

Full Transcript:

My grandmother never wanted to come to America. That’s the story I heard over and over again. Her older sister, Mary, was the one who should have gone. But on that early morning of departure 1887 Mary woke up sick or so she said. She took to her bed crying, moaning.  She couldn’t possibly go. Now my grandmother was just 13 years old.  Hard enough to go to bed and know that you would never see your older sister again. You got to understand, there were no airplanes back then people didn’t fly back and forth.  Hard enough to go to bed that way, but instead she was woken up and told, “No, you’re the one to leave. You’re the one who’s never going to see her family again.”  Now back then, you see, you couldn’t waste a ticket. It has taken the family years to save up enough money for one ticket. So, my grandma had to wake up, quick, hurry around pack a few things in the carpet bag suitcase her mother had made for Mary and say goodbye to her three sisters and her younger brother Patrick, her mom, and her dad.  Because somebody had to go get work in America, send money back home because the family was starving.

My grandmother set out for Dublin, a two-week journey by foot, with another aunt who was supposed to have watched Mary.  And as they went down the road, there would have been hundreds of people joining them because millions left Ireland in the 1800s.  And all the time they walked, these, these horse-drawn caravans, these carts piled high with fresh fruits and vegetables, would have passed them by.  Because the British who were running Ireland at the time, were taking all the food for themselves.

Now, you may have heard of the Great Famine in Ireland.  But I found out when I went to visit Ireland, a lot of people call it the Great Starvation because there was food.  The Irish just weren’t allowed to grow the food, I mean, to eat the food they were growing.  The food they grew had to go to the British.  They would ship it over to England.  So, all the time my grandma’s walking; of course, there were no fast food restaurants back then, nor did anybody have any money if there were any restaurants. So, they started eating weeds and cabbage leaves and grass to try to stay alive. By time they got to the docks in Dublin, some British writers wrote that their faces were stained green.  Their mouths were stained green.  And this showed just how subhuman, animal-like the Irish really were.

Well, my grandma, she sailed across the Atlantic Ocean. She sailed in what they called coffin ships, like caskets because so many people died on those voyages. Hundreds of people were packed in the bottom of the boat.  And there were so many diseases back then… diphtheria, typhus; things like that… cholera. See, the people could only be allowed up on board for maybe an hour or so because they couldn’t let people be getting in the crew’s way. So, they had to be down below and you can imagine the stench because there were no toilets back then.  They used tin cans or buckets for chamber pots. And there was no electricity and you certainly wouldn’t want to light a candle; that would be too dangerous. So you just sat in the dark and all this stench. And then people would sleep on these little narrow bunks – three or four people to a bunk. Sometimes sleeping with somebody you didn’t know. Nobody could shower and there was lice and all that.

And I tried to imagine my grandmother just 13 years old with this, this aunt and we don’t know too many details, but we found out this aunt got sick who was supposed to be taking care of my grandmother. My grandma was taking care of her. And I just think of here sitting in dark like 23 hours a day. Sick people all around us like… six, seven, eight weeks like this. Well, she got to America. Thank goodness! And she worked day and night. And all the time she would send money back home. Now, when she left, her parents said, “Now, don’t worry we’ll save up some money. We’ll send one of the other sisters to help you out.” But no sister ever, ever came. My grandma was just alone doing all of that work. And I think about what people have gone through to get to this country, or what they’re still going through to get to this country or people who were captured and brought to this country, or people who already lived here but their lands and their way of life were taken. And I think about what a huge debt of gratitude we owe them. I know that my life could not be the way it was if it wasn’t for my grandmother’s sacrifices. So sometimes I find myself whispering a little prayer. Thank you, Grandma. Thank you.

THE OBERLIN RESCUE OF 1858

By Storyteller Susan O’Halloran

 

Story Summary:

 John Price escapes from the Kentucky plantation where he had been enslaved. He plans to go to Canada but when he arrives in Oberlin, Ohio and sees Black shopkeepers and Black students going to college, he decides to stay. However, he doesn’t know that a slave catcher under the protection of the Fugitive Slave Act is coming for him.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: The-Oberlin-Rescue

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Why was the Fugitive Slave Act enacted in 1850? What did it require of citizens and what was the punishment for disobeying this law?
  2. The Supreme Court upheld the Fugitive Slave Act. Five of the nine Supreme Court justices participated in slavery. How do you think their involvement with slavery affected their vote? Do you think it would have been possible for the judges to remain “impartial”?
  3. Why did President Buchanan’s administration decide it had to make an example of the Oberlin Rescuers? In what ways did the federal government’s plan to punish Oberlin backfire? What actions did the public take to show their support of the Rescuers?
  4. Susan tells a story set in the period when slavery existed in America. She tells this story without ever using the word “slave” (except to refer to the already-named Fugitive Slave Law). What difference does it make to talk about “a person who escaped slavery” or “a person who was captured and enslaved” rather than “a slave”? How does language hide responsibility? Give other examples such as calling an area a “ghetto” instead of a “dis-invested neighborhood.”
  5. Do we have a responsibility to make things “better”? What would you like to change? What would you be willing to do to make a difference?

Resources:

  • Oberlin, Hotbed of Abolitionism: College, Community, and the Fight for Freedom in Antebellum South by J. Brent Morris
  • History of the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue by Jacob R. Shipherd

Themes:

  •  African American/Black History
  • Crossing Cultures
  • European American/Whites
  • Identity
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

Slavery was invented. We often don’t think of it that way but it was created step by step and law by law. At first, you know, somebody could be enslaved only a certain period of time but they changed that.  And it used to be that the children of people who were enslaved, they wouldn’t be enslaved, they were free. Well, they changed that. And it used to be they would give rewards to people if they caught somebody who escaped but that wasn’t working because so many people were escaping slavery. So they tried punishment. In 1850, they patched… passed the Fugitive Slave Law. Now, it said if you knew somebody was escaping and you didn’t assist in their arrest, you would get fined. If you helped, you’d get fined and you would be sent to jail.

But one town, Oberlin, Ohio, said, “Uh, uh, we’re not doing it.” Now it had been known as a pretty progressive town, they refused to celebrate the 4th of July. And they said, “How can we celebrate Independence Day when we have people on our land who are enslaved?” And they’re the first folks to send men, women, and blacks to college. And they were the first folks you had, um, had more… um, everybody could vote there before that was true of the rest of the nation.

So, some people said that the Civil War almost started earlier in Oberlin because of something that happened in 1857.  Here’s what happened. There were two people who are enslaved down in Kentucky. They’re just a quarter mile, two blocks away from the Ohio River that separated the South and the North. But they had been enslaved by a man named John Bacon, and their names were John and Dinah. And they wanted to be free. Now this was very risky business because, of course, you’ll be shot, killed, maimed, whatever, trying to escape. And that was kind of the lucky ones because if they caught you and brought you back, ah, your life could really be hard.

But John and Dinah didn’t care. They were two cousins who wanted to be free. And they saw their chance.  One night, when John Bacon went off to visit family, and the man who was put in charge to watch the enslaved people on that plantation, kind of had a reputation of being somebody who fell asleep on the job.  Well, word spread that he was asleep. And then, John and Dinah, they crept into the barn. Now can you imagine how hard it was to keep two horses quiet? They managed to get the horses out of that barn and then they rode in the opposite direction. Now it wasn’t that they didn’t know where they were. Now, this happened to a lot of people. You get captured in Africa, you get brought here. It’s not like somebody showed you a map of where you were. But it wasn’t because they didn’t know where they were. They were doing something very brave. They were going the opposite direction to go get their friend, Frank, who also wanted to escape. They picked him up, two on one horse, one on the other. They raced back to the Ohio River. Got across with no problem because it was winter and the river was frozen. When they got to the other side, they couldn’t find the path up that bank.

Now remember, this was back in the 1800’s. There were no electric street lights or whatever.  Pitch darkness; scrambling all night in the freezing cold. They didn’t have coats or anything. (That was one of the ways they kept people who are enslaved from running is that they take their shoes or heavy coats at night.) Scrambling, trying to find the path up and couldn’t find it. And they knew that if the sun came up that morning, oh, my goodness, they’d be so easy to spot. Three people, two horses on the bank. So they kept on all night. And finally, they find their way up.

And then John did something,to me it’s kind of amazing.

He said, “Nobody can own me, but John Bacon owned these horses.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but if I’ve been working free all my life, and my mom had been and my grandma had been, I’d be thinking these horses belong to me. But he hit them on the rump and sent them home. And then they went on their way. They split up. Dinah went with somebody from the underground railroad and Frank and John headed up to Oberlin. Now, the plan was they’d be in Oberlin and wait for Lake Erie to thaw and move up to Canada. When they got to Oberlin, it must’ve felt like a fantasyland. There were black storekeepers. There were black people going to college! They got a job with a farmer paying a dollar a day. Well, after working for free, that seemed like a lot. So they decided to stay. And John took the name John Price.

What he didn’t know was that slavecatchers had been sent after them. A man named Anderson Jennings was a professional slavecatcher. He could get as much as a thousand dollars, a lot of money back then, if he caught somebody. So, not everybody was progressive in Oberlin. He found a family he knew that he could count on, the Boyntons, and this is a great name. He got their son, 10-year-old boy, Shakespeare Boynton, gave him twenty dollars and told him to go pick up John and Frank. So, Shakespeare took his buggy and went to the farm where John was working. “Hey, my dad’s paying two dollars a day, twice as much, come and help.”

Now, John, he was a loyal friend. He said, “No, my friend, Frank, is kind of sick. I can’t go.” Good!  But then he said, “But I know somebody who really needs the money.  I’ll show you where he’s staying.” And he got in the buggy with Shakespeare. And Shakespeare started driving the wrong way and John’s like, “No, my friend’s over here.” Drive them into the woods. And, all of a sudden, another buggy comes tromping up behind. Men jump out with rifles, grab John, tie him up, throw him in their buggy and off they go!

Now, Anderson Jennings and his men knew they weren’t going to try to get on the train at Oberlin. That town was not a friendly place for them. So went nine miles south to Wellington and they rented the third floor, like, attic, because it wasn’t coming… a night train was coming, and they had to wait. They could see from that vantage point iF anybody was coming, if there was any trouble. Well, luckily, an Oberlin student saw all this going on, saw John get captured, and went running into town.

“They’ve got John! They’ve got John Price! Hurry!”

People went out on horses, on their buggies, they went to the livery station and rented some, they went out on foot to go the nine miles to Wellington. And imagine Anderson Jennings surprise when he saw a hundred people show up in front of that Wadsworth Hotel where they were waiting. And then two hundred people in the square. Three hundred, four hundred, five hundred, six hundred, seven hundred people came down. Remember all these people were breaking the federal law, the Fugitive Slave Law. All of them could be in prison but they were shouting, “Give us John Price!  Give us John Price!”

Well, Anderson Jennings got kind of nervous. He sent one of his men to the telegraph office to send a wire, sending for soldiers because it was federal law. Sent for the federal soldiers to come help them. And the rumors spread in the crowd.

“The soldiers are coming. We better make our move.” So one group went up the front of the hotel, the other went up the back.

But now it was kind of light, and they couldn’t see where they were going. All of sudden, the group that went up the back, saw Anderson Jennings’ men there with rifles. And one of the Oberlin (Anderson Jennings’) men took his rifle, ready to shoot. And just at that moment, then the Oberlin man hit that rifle, and it hit – the bullet went right up into the ceiling. He said, “No! No violence!” Now this was an African-American man who had the lashes down his back to prove that he could have been out for revenge but instead, he said no violence. But that was enough to scare Jennings’ men. They went running off. That group went up the back steps, they met the group that had gone up the top steps. Remember, there’s no lights, electricity, back then.  It was getting dark. So it’s kind of like, I don’t know if you saw the old comedy of the Keystone Cops; doodalum, doodalum; kind of running into each other, trying to figure out where is the room John might be in. And just at that moment, Anderson Jennings pulled his head back and looked through a hole where an old stove pipe he had been, trying to see down the dark of the hall; who’s making that noise.

Just then one of the Oberlin men took his rifle and put it down that hall and bonked, bonked Jennings on the head. He fell to the ground and let go of the rope he was holding. That’s all they were using to close the door, wasn’t even locked. The door swung open. The Oberlin people came in. There was all this confusion. But they knew they had John when they heard the cheers outside of,  “Yeah, John!” of the whole crowd cheering.  And they whisked him off. We don’t know where exactly. Some say Canada. I like to think he and his cousin Dinah found each other.

Well, the federal marshals came marching into town. They arrest 37 people – legislators, farmers, a 74-year-old man – none of them had previous records except one who had been fined $1 for smoking a cigar on the Oberlin street. When they came into the classroom to arrest one of the teachers, this little first grader stood up and he said, “Why our teacher had more goodness in his little finger than your entire carcass!” And they jailed these people, 37 Oberlin people, at maximum security in Cleveland.

They said, “We’ve got to make an example! These Oberlin people have always been pushing against the laws.  We got to make an example.”

But it backfired. Four thousand people came to visit them. School children wrote letters. People wrote articles calling them the new patriots. And Jennings came up to that trial; which was completely rigged by the way, you can’t believe what they did in that trial; when Jennings, Anderson Jennings the slavecatcher, came up to that trial, the Oberlin people kidnapped him. And they made him sign something that said he would never come trying to catch enslaved people who had previously been a slave before. And after that, the government‘s case just completely fell apart and they had to release them. And when they did, bands met them, people played Yankee Doodle Dandy, cannons were shot up, they got on the train in Cleveland, and they went to Oberlin. And when they got there, this little town of under 2,000 people, there were 5,000 people there to greet them. And they had a huge rally, and at that rally, everybody stood up and took a pledge that nobody would ever be caught in their town again. And nobody ever was.

That’s the kind of people we come from. That’s our legacy. We come from a group of people who have always stood up for each other. People who said they would risk anything for freedom. People who have refused to be divided and said, “No!  We are one American family!”

DAVY CROCKETT

By Storyteller Susan O’Halloran

 

Story Summary:

 As a five-year-old Sue met a boy her age who was different from her. Sue’s mother subtly lets Sue know that she is not to be friends with the boy.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  Davy-Crockett

Discussion Questions:

  1. When was the first time you met someone of another “race”?  What effect did it have on you?
  2. What unspoken lessons around race have been transmitted to you?
  3. What does Sue mean when she says that it was “even more damaging” that she received a message from her mother that they and the place where they lived was “better”?
  4. How was Sue damaged by being taught that she, her family and her community were superior?

Resources:

  • Critical White Studies by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefanci
  • Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People by Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony Greenwald

Themes:

  •  African American/Black History
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood

Full Transcript:

The first child I ever met, who was my age, who was black wore a Davy Crockett cap. So did I. We met at the Downtown Chicago State Street bus stop. Our mothers had gotten us there just in time for the first release of Davy Crockett raccoon skin cap from Marshall Fields Department store. I was five years old and I assumed the boy was the same age. We showed each other our caps. The very same caps that Davy wore every Sunday night in the Disneyland TV series. We showed each other our Jim Bowie rubber knives. We chased each other on that bus stop bench. We even sang Davy’s song, “Kilt him a bear when he was only three. Davy Crockett. King of the wild frontier.”

His bus came first. Before either mother could see what was happening, I followed him on. He reached down the steps to me. I reached up to him and just as our fingers touched. We flew away from each other. I felt my mother’s fingers deep into my arm as she yanked me back into her body and she said, “We don’t go his way.”  Well, I searched for my friend in a reflection of the glass. And I said to my mom, “Well, maybe we’ll be in the same kindergarten class.”

“No you won’t,” she chopped the words into my ear. And then she added, “He lives,” and she turned to make sure nobody else was hearing. She said, “Oh, honey he lives in a different neighborhood.” Still, her voice in that whisper, I didn’t understand. But the lesson transmitted all the same. He was not the same as us. For the first time I saw it the way my mother saw it. But even more subtle, more damaging, never spoken but transmitted through muscle, right into my very bones. We lived in different places and where we lived was better.

DR. KING CAME TO TOWN

by Storyteller Susan O’Halloran

 

For a print friendly version, click here:  Dr-King-Came-to-Town

Full Transcript:

It was Friday, August 12th, 1966 and Dr. Martin Luther King was marching through my Southwest Side Chicago neighborhood, having an Open Housing March. Now he was marching down 79th Street, that was four blocks from my home on 84th Street. But still, all the lights were out in my house, the windows, the doors were locked, all the draperies were closed. And it was hot. August Dog Days hot in that tiny little living room. And I tried to peek around the curtain, take a look. But my grandmother was like, “Su-san, don’t look! Don’t look!” I said, “Ma, the marchers are four blocks away. It is not going to hurt.”

She was like, “Su-san, the priest said so. The priest said, ‘Don’t go out till the marchers are gone.’ ”

I, kind of, rolled my eyes and seeing that this was having no effect, the priest, she tried the politicians. “You know, Mr. Burke said too. Mr. Burke said, “No going out.’ ” Now, Mr. Burke was our precinct captain and he had gone house to house as he had been told to do by the Democratic Party, telling all of us to stay inside during that Open Housing March. And my grandparents had said, of course, they’ll keep us kids inside and they went back up to their sitting room. And I noticed Mr. Burke came in and whispered something to my dad.

And my dad started to walk out with them and I was like, “What’s happening?” And he, my dad, came back in and said how Mr. Bourke’s rounding up some of the men. There’s some new construction over on 79th Street. There’s some bricks they’re going to put a tarp over or remove the brick so nobody throws them at the marchers tomorrow. “That’s all we need,” my dad said. “People throwing bricks at the marchers tomorrow.  But don’t say anything to your grandma. Don’t scare your grandparents.” Well, he didn’t say anything about scaring me. And I was scared.

That summer, earlier in 1966, there had been race riots all over the country. I mean people had been killed in these riots. Those days I go to sleep with racial conflicts from the 10 O’clock News meshing with my dreams and I wake up expecting to see that the sidewalks have buckled. I mean, really part of me expected the whole city to blow. But with my grandparents, I was total calmness. I said, “Ma, it is hot in here. I’m just going to step out, sit on the front porch, get some fresh air. It’s not healthy in here. I’ll be right back.”

“No,” she said. And my grandparents were sitting at the dining room table, which was only a few steps away from our little living room. And she started moaning, “Oh, what do the coloreds want? What do they want?” My grandfather knew the answer.

He said, “First they want our jobs. Now they want our houses.”

Well, I had had enough. I started to walk to the door. She called again, “No, the priests, the politicians, they say don’t go out!”

I go, “Ma, I’m just going to sit on the porch.”

She goes, “What do they want? What do they want?”

My grandpa said, “They want everything.” I had had enough. I walked out the front door.

And as I did, I felt this kind of strange mixture of shame and triumph. Shame because right then I just hated my grandparents. I was so embarrassed by their prejudice. But I also felt this triumph because I’d done it. I mean, Dr. King’s people were marching down our streets and I’d… marched out my front door. At 16, it was the best I could do.

When I sat down on the porch, I was so surprised to see that the block was empty. There was this eerie silence. I mean, usually on a hot summer day, these front porches would be packed with people because we had no air conditioning back then. People would just be sitting there like drooping flags, begging for a breeze. It’s like a neutron bomb had gone off. Only the buildings remained.

And I sat there… and I could remember the last few Sundays there had been Open Housing Marches at Marq