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.”