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!

My Parents’ Three Migrations

by Storyteller Kiran Singh Sirah

 

Story Summary:

 Kiran shares the stories he heard about his parents’ three migrations from India to Uganda to England.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  My-Parents-Three-Migrations

Discussion Questions:

  1. If a story plays a part in your identity – what is it and why do you use it to state who you are? Is there more than one story we can use to claim or identify who we are?
  2. What is your family migration story?  Does it matter or not?
  3. What are some of the challenging moments in your life? How did you handle them? Could the challenges you faced and the solutions you created be a story that you tell?
  4. Can you describe the story of a world you’d like to see and live in?

Resources:

  •  Idi Amin: Lion of Africa by Manzoor Moghal
  • Immigrants Settling in the City: Ugandan Asians in Leicester by Valerie Maret

Themes:

  •  Asian American/Asians
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Family and Childhood
  • Identity
  • Immigration
  • Living and Traveling Abroad

Full Transcript:

So, my name is Kiran Singh Sirah. And this story is about my parents.

How do you eat a mango? You hold a mango in your hands, you caress it, you squeeze it, and you soften the pulp from the mango, and then you suck out the juice from the middle. I know how to eat mango because my parents told me how to eat a mango. They came to Britain in 1972 from Uganda as Ugandan refugees, and I was born in England. But they told me how to eat the mango because that’s what they did in Uganda. Mangoes flourished in their garden. And we eat mangos every day. But there are so many other stories from Uganda and Kenya.

There were stories about how my mother, when she grew up, she was sitting in an elementary classroom, and, she picked… a cobra, walked into, came into the classroom, and she picked up a hockey stick and killed the cobra. And still to this day, that cobra is in a jar and in the school museum with a label on it, “Killed by Pravina Korga Tora.” There were so many other stories from East Africa, from Kenya, and Uganda, where my family grew up. Stories about how they’d make popcorn and go to the drive-in cinema. Or stories of how they would pick food from the garden and make bugga or baquarda, bagia. Or how they make African food and combine that with Indian ingredients like ugali.

There was even a story once that my mother told me that the Bisaya people used to come on trains with vegetables and fruit and sell these vegetables to the houses. And one day, a young boy was knocking at the door to sell vegetables. And my grandma opened the door and invited this young boy in. And he became a friend of the family and as he grew up with my mother.

There was a story about my grandfather that one day, he looked out and he saw so many people walking past thirsty, they had no water. So, he went out with his own hands, he built a well so they could drink fresh clean water. There are many stories such as this and I know them because my parents told them to me and I had never been to Uganda.

But in 1972, in the summertime, Idi Amin, the then dictator of Uganda, announced on public radio, that Ugandan Asians had to leave the country in three months or they be executed. Now, you can imagine the panic. People were scared. But they had no time to fuss around. They had to pack up what they could, put their possessions into bags, and then leave the country, or obtain the visas so they could leave the country. A sociologist once described my people as the thrice migrant community. A community of people that had migrated across three continents in one lifetime. Thousands fled the borders. Some moved back into Kenya or Malawi or Tanzania. Well, my family were kind of lucky because they were born as British citizens. Originally, my grandparents came from India to East Africa to build the railroads from Mombasa to Jinja, the source of the Nile. The British needed the British railroads to keep control of the British Empire. They needed an access from the sea to the source of the Nile, to keep control of the Suez Canal. So, they sent for migrant Indian skilled workers to do this. And when it became an independent country, both Kenya and Uganda, the Ugandan Asians, they stayed and they settled and made Uganda their home.

On route to Britain, though, in the winter of 1972, things weren’t all that rosy. When the plane tried to land at Luton Airport, the airport was stormed by far right fascist groups that tried to stop the immigrants from coming into the country. And this was spurred by Enoch Powell’s “The Rivers of Blood” speech. Enoch Powell was a politician that talked about the blood of migrants is going to ruin our country. Many of the refugees settled in refugee camps. But my father got word, because he was a young architect in Uganda, that sister branch in a town called Eastbourne, sent word that any Ugandan refugees that were going to come to England had a promise of a job. So, my parents moved to Eastbourne.

The front page of the headline of the Eastbourne Herald Newspaper read, Uga, “Eastbourne  Welcomes Ugandan Refugees,” and there was a picture on it of my parents. A young, cool Indian couple. My father wore a bright red turban. My mum even, even bright red sari and they carried a little baby, my older brother.

Eastbourne was where they grew up. It was also where I was born. It was a town that welcomed my family in. There was so many stories about those early years. I remember, my dad told me once, when he was walking down the Eastbourne promenade, a young boy called out, “Look mum, aliens!” My dad loves to tell that story. I once asked my dad what was it like. You left Uganda at gunpoint. You came to England, you had, your plane had to reroute. You started a new life. You had no possessions, no houses, hardly any money. The only money they brought into the country was jew… wedding jewelry, stuffed into my brother’s diaper. They had to start life from scratch. Must’ve been really difficult.

And my dad was like, “No, Son, it was fun. It was an adventure. And you know why? Because we’re doing it together. We had a sense of community. We helped each other out.”

When they came to Britain, alls they had was minimal possessions but what they did have was the power of the stories that are passed on to them and the power of stories that they passed on to me. I’m so grateful for the stories that were passed on to me by my parents. And the strength and this belief that I believe. That to tell a story in this world is more than a human right. It’s actually an act of love that can change the world. And I’m grateful for the stories that have changed my world and made me realize the person I could be.

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.

Mixing It Up

by Storyteller Laura Simms

 

Story Summary:

 In schools, racial violence often stems from learned bias. Listening to one another is an antidote to the gap between people and transforms bias into deep concern and creative change.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  Mixing-It-Up

Discussion Questions:

  1. Have you ever been misunderstood?  Has someone either assumed something about you or misread what you said or did?  Can you tell about that experience?
  2. What do you think happens when we know something about another person’s life that engages us with empathy or interest (especially if only moments before we had decided he or she was not a good person?)
  3. What is the difference between listening to a story and reading a story?

Resource:

  • School Violence in Context: Culture, Neighborhood, Family, School and Gender by Rami Benbenishty and Ron Avi Astor

Themes:

  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Workplace

Full Transcript:

Hi, I’m Laura Simms. And I got a phone call early one morning, from a junior high school principal. It was 20 years ago. And he said that there was racial tension in his school. Three gangs, battling every day in the schoolyard. “Sometimes it was extremely violent,” he said. “There were Chinese, Latino, African-American gangs. Could I tell stories? And would that somehow bring them into dialogue?”

He wanted to know exactly what I was going to do and exactly what the outcomes were. So, I said, “Well, I have no idea about the outcome; I’d have to just be there. But I do know that listening is a kind of magic.” He said he would think about it. Two days later, I was in the school.

And I entered the classroom, and it was a scene that I’m now very familiar with, there were kids sitting in three racially specific zones. Arms folded as if they had absolutely no emotions and a kind of weird, numb tension in the room. I sat in the front of the room. Nobody paid any actual attention to me but I started telling stories. And I told three stories, one after another. I told a story about growing up in Brooklyn with a Norwegian and African-American girlfriend. It was all about creativity, disobedience. I noticed that arms were kind of loosening. Then I told a West African story about girls and jealousy, power necklace. And people were leaning in. And then I told the third story, which is a story I love from Morocco. About a wild girl who has been so traumatized that she doesn’t speak and how she becomes, through her story, a queen.

And there was a moment of silence and then a Chinese boy just blurted out, “Man, I know that story about the girls is true.” I didn’t have time to ask which story. He said, “My grandmother, my grandmother had a walk across China during the revolution. She sold her only gold bracelet for a bowl of rice.”

Then a girl in the back said, “I sleep during my classes. You want to know why?”

I said, “Yeah, I do.”

And she said, “I understand those girls in the necklace story. I like that.”

I said, “Okay.”

She said that, “I have 10 brothers and sisters. My youngest brother is retarded. It’s my job to get up at 5 o’clock in the morning, dress everybody, feed the youngest. When I come home, I have to do homework with all of them. I put them to bed. I’m tired. That’s why I sleep all day.”

Everybody kind of giggled but it wasn’t in criticism or making fun of her. It was some kind of a mutual understanding. I said, “Wel,l anybody else have a story? Does this remind you of anything? Did you like those stories?”

Somebody called out and said, “Hey, was that mud story true?”

I said, “99.5 percent.” And they all laughed and then they went on to tell stories. And it was the first time they had listened to each other. And it was for me, the time I realized that when you hear each other’s stories, you’re not an assumed enemy anymore. You’re a human being.

Bell rang, everybody got up. They kind of sauntered out. A couple of people touched me. Somebody shook my hand. Gave me like a fist hello/goodbye. Off they went. Second group came in. Same thing. Three zones. But then, half of the kids who’d been there earlier, wandered in and they sat on the windowsills, filled in empty seats. The three zones were not so clear anymore. I said, “What are you doing here?” You have to go to classes.”

“These teachers, man, they don’t care if we come in. We said, ‘We like that story girl, can we go back?’”

So, I had a large crowd. I chose three different stories. Again, the conversation occurred. I told stories every day to all of them for three periods, three days. After that, we began to write in small groups. They wrote about their futures, what they wanted to be. One boy at one point looked around the room. He started laughing. He said, “Hey, we mixing it up now.” And I knew what he meant.

The principal said to me, “Like how’d that happen?”

And I said, “You know, something I’ve really come to think about a lot and to say a lot? What’s really happening here is that when you listen to a story, you’re not really hearing about someone else, even if it’s your personal story. When you hear the story, you become everything you imagine. So, that distance just dissolves like a wall of sand melting.”

We were peacemaking. I never talked about the causes of their violence. I never spoke with them about the violence in the schoolyard. What we did, we shared our lives. It wasn’t a common ground of what we had in common. It was the common ground of everyone having a story, and everyone listening, and everyone beginning to want each other to have the best future possible.

Months later, I went back to the school and I was walking down the hallway and, uh, actually, no one remembered my name, but they remembered the names of characters and the stories. They would say, “Hey, Magali! Hey, mud sister!” They didn’t have to even thank me for me to know that they had uncovered inside of themselves what was always there…their joy. And by listening.

It’s true that those violent gang battles in the schoolyard lessened. And that was the beginning of my work with kids in the schools. Understanding why I was telling stories.

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.

That Place Within Untarnished

by Storyteller Laura Simms

 

Story Summary:

 Laura befriends and, then, adopts a former child soldier from Sierra Leone. Years later, Ishmael Beah goes on to become a best-selling author. One day, while speaking on a panel together, she and her grown son hear of the genocide in Rwanda. A woman from Rwanda tells of a child who makes a difficult choice when he finds himself in the same room with the man who murdered his parents. Laura’s son, Ishmael, understands and applauds the child’s choice. He is glad the child will not have to define himself as a murderer and can keep in touch with the place within that Ishmael has once again found – the place within that is untouched by war, murderous alternatives and biases of any sort.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  That-Place-Within-Untarnished

Discussion Questions:

  1.  What surprised you the most about the story Laura and Ishmael heard about Rwanda?
  2. Do you think it is fair to have children fighting in wars?
  3. Most people want to know what are causes of war. What do you think are the causes of Peace?

Resources:

  • A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah
  •  Making Peace in Times of War by Pema Chodron
  • The Trauma of Everyday Life by Mark Epstein MD
  • A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Story of Forgiveness by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela
  • The Way of Council by Jack Zimmerman

Themes:

  •  African American/Black History
  • Family and Childhood
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
  • War

Full Transcript:

Hi, I’m Laura Simms. In 1996, I was a facilitator at a UNICEF conference at the United Nations called Young Voices. There were 57 young people from 23 third world countries. They were there, actually, to create what later became a Children’s Bill of Rights. My very first day, I met two young boys; thin, wearing cotton shorts and T-shirts, who came from Sierra Leone, West Africa. I literally went home because it was mid-November, was snowing, they had never been in cold weather, and gave them my winter coats. The interesting thing is, of course, that years passed and I got these two boys out of the war in Africa. One of them became my son and reminded me often that first year that he would never wear a women’s winter coat again.

It was an amazing 10 days. And a lot of what happened during those 10 days was, these kids listening to each other’s stories. And these boys were so gentle, so sweet that I had met outside of UNICEF that day, who wore my coats, wrapped up, they told horrendous stories of having been child soldiers. Learning to be murderers. Believing that these murderers would take revenge on the death of their parents, who they had both seen killed, including family members and friends. A terrible civil war occurred in Sierra Leone.

So many things about Ishmael. One is that Ishmael wrote an amazing memoir. The publishers thought, well, a few people will like this but actually it became a bestseller A Long Way Gone. Twenty million copies sold. Everybody wanted to read this book. About a child’s experience in war. And Ishmael and I were invited to give a talk together (which in those years we did a lot) at a journalism school and university. And then, we were on a panel and one of the other panelists was a woman from Rwanda. Let me back up a minute, because people were always asking me how could you do this? How could you have a child who has murdered be your child, live in your house? But I’m a storyteller and I’ve been meditating for over 25 years. And I really understood, something I believed, that inside each of us there is a place that is untarnished by violence, untarnished by circumstances. And if we come back to that place, that’s the place at which we can transform. And that, basically, everybody is good. And I knew from Ishmael, at least, that he’d had enough violence to last ten lifetimes. The last thing he wanted to do was to be engaged with any conflict at all. And he was peaceful. He grew up in a traditional storytelling culture.

The woman from Rwanda. After Ishmael and I spoke, she spoke and, of course, she spoke about stories. It was her job in Rwanda, after the terrible genocide, to listen to young people’s stories. And she told a tale, true tale, that was harrowing but haunting. It was a story about a Tutsi boy who was caught in a horrible massacre. And his body along with the bodies of his family and all his neighbors were thrown into a ravine, assumed dead. And that night, he awoke under the bodies. Shocked. And made his way up out this sea…of misery and blood. He was a kid, so, what did he do? He wandered back to his house. He washed himself and he got under the sheets on his parents’ bed and went to sleep. In the middle of the night, a man came in, set his machete down next to the bed. He washed. Also seeking comfort, he climbed into the bed. He hadn’t seen the boy. But they both slept deeply and in the middle of the night seeking comfort, they rolled into each other’s arms and slept in the safety of embrace.

She described how early in the morning, the boy told her, he woke up and he was face to face with the man who had killed his family. And at first he thought, “I should kill him.” But he had enough violence and he had slept in that man’s arms as if that man was his parent. So, he got up out of the bed and wandered out into the bush, where he was eventually found and saved.

Ishmael and I listened to the story. And seated in the lobby of our hotel that night, we talked about. How it had moved us both. And Ishmael said, “That’s the place isn’t it? That, that’s that place. That untarnished place.”

And I said, “Yes, it was really remarkable to hear the story. Most people would probably say that boy should have killed that man.”

And Ishmael said, “No. If he had killed the man. He would have been a murderer as well.”

Those years, every so often, Ishmael and I would talk about that story. And then one morning, he got up, and knocked on my bedroom door. And he said, “It’s still there. It’s still there.”

And I said, “What? What is still there?”

And he said, “I know we heard that story. I know we were talking about this but I thought that place inside of me was gone. That the war had taken it away. So, but I woke up, I felt it. I felt the joy. It’s still there. That place is still there.”

I understood. He would more than survive. Which he did, going on to write the book To Marry As A Child. And for me it changed everything. I understood the goal of my story telling. That place where, regardless of race, of violence, of learned habits, of bias. That place exists in all of us. And sometimes, I weep for the world. But knowing that I can do something about it completely cheers me up.

The untarnished place. That’s true.

Close Encounters

by Storyteller Barbara Schutzgruber

 

Story Summary:

 Small town meets big city.  Boundaries are crossed and cultures collide when a Midwest family encounters the boys from New York City. Will they find common ground or confrontation?

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Close-Encounters

Discussion Questions:

  1. When you meet someone new or go somewhere new, what do you notice first – the similarities or the differences?
  2. Has someone ever made an assumption about you that was incorrect?  How did that make you feel?
  3. Have you ever changed a negative opinion about someone after you had gotten to know him or her better?

Resources:

  • Elementary:
    • Same, Same, but Different by Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw
    • Everyday worlds might look different on the surface but with a closer look, they are actually similar.
  • Elementary & Middle School:
    • Snappsy the Alligator (Did Not Ask to Be in This Book) by Julie Falatko
    • Headed to the grocery store … or PROWLING the forest for defenseless birds and fuzzy bunnies – what’s the truth?
    • ‘What Was I Scared Of?’  from Sneetches and Other Stories by Dr. Seuss
    • This classic story delivers a timeless message about fear and tolerance.
  • High School & Teenagers:
    • In 1964 the New York Times ran the headline “37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police”.  While it was true that some neighbors had heard Kitty Genovese’ cries for help, the portrayal of 37 witnesses standing by and doing nothing was not true and did not represent the facts of that night.
    • “How Headlines Change the Way We Think” 
    • Maria Konikova, The New Yorker, December 17, 2014
    • http://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/headlines-change-way-think

Themes:

  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • Family and Childhood
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

I’m Barb Schutzgruber. The summer of 1964, mom and dad packed the five of us kids, ranging in age from 14 down to 6, into the 9-passenger station wagon and we traveled east going from Michigan to New York City. Now there were some folks in the small town where we lived who thought mom and dad were nuts. Stories of gangs, crime plus all the wild reports that spring of how dozens of New Yorkers stood by and did nothing to stop the brutal murder of Kitty Genovese, who was a young woman simply walking home from work one night. Why would you even think of going to New York? New Yorkers are cold and heartless. They’ll take advantage of you or worse.

But for me, I was nine years old and all I knew was that we were going to stay with mom’s Uncle Ed in Brooklyn. We were gonna go to the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, the United Nations and we were going to the 1964 New York World’s Fair. For three days, we explored the city because seven of us could not fit into one cab and taking two and, most likely, three was way too expensive, so out of the question!

All of us walked the streets of New York, miles and miles of cement, buildings that blotted out the sun and even the sky sometimes, noises and strange smells. People, saw many people rushing about, no one looking at anyone. And we rode the subway. Once we were huddled in a crowded subway car next to an older man and he took the time and told us all about how those subway tunnels were built. He even complimented us kids on how polite and well-behaved we were. As my sisters and I looked on, he handed my brothers each quarters because he had no sons. And then with a wink and a smile, he handed quarters to us girls too because how could he leave out such lovely young ladies.

The day we went to the World’s Fair, it was after midnight by the time we got back, much to Uncle Ed’s worry and apprehension. At $2 a ticket, mom was going to make sure that we saw every inch and got our money’s worth. So, we did see every inch of the over six-hundred-acre complex. We stayed right up till closing and barely caught the last ferry that would take us from Queens back to Brooklyn.

After a long day of heat, humidity, crowds, overstimulation, we made our way to the deserted upper deck of that ferry. It was so nice to be somewhere quiet and no one else around anywhere. My two older sisters and older brother collapsed, each on their own bench. My little brother fell asleep with his head on mom’s lap. Dad leaned against the rail, smoking a cigarette. I sat with my back against the bulkhead, the vibration of those heavy diesel… em… vi… ah, engines vibrating in my bones. There was the gentle rhythm and sway, comforting as that boat pulled out onto the water. The smell of sea water with just the faintest hint of diesel fuel was on the breeze. I looked out over the dark waters off in the distance, the city lights twinkled. New York City has its own set of stars.

The spell was broken, suddenly, by voices coming from below deck, loud and boisterous. Half dozen or so teenage guys, pushing and shoving, stumbled up the stairwell, spilling out onto the deck. They took one look at us and said, “Tourists.”

Slowly they divided, forming a half circle around dad. Forty, bald, wearing a Cornell University T-shirt and dark blue Bermuda shorts, arm in a brace, Dad was a contrast to those city boys with their slicked back hair, blue jeans, white T-shirts, cigarettes neatly rolled up in the sleeve, with a swagger. One of them stepped forward and as the others laughed, he taunted, “Hey, old man! All those kids yours?”

Dad exhaled slowly, stood up, turned and said with a smile, “Yeah, isn’t it great?”

The voice took a step back. “Well, yeah, I guess it is.”

Dad continued, “We’re from Michigan. New York is a great city. What borough are you fellows from?”

There was a moment of awkward silence and then those boys began to talk. I watched as Dad asked questions and listened intently to whoever was speaking, and the posture of those teenagers changed. They relaxed and soon they were shifting easily from one foot to another, interrupting each other to get a word in, laughing, gesturing as they spoke. Even the one who stood awkwardly at the back of the group was brought in and became part of that conversation.

A movement off to the side caught my attention. A crewman had come up on deck. He stopped dead in his tracks. He looked at mom, the five of us kids, dad leaning against the rail surrounded by a group of young men who were gesturing as they spoke. Without saying a word, he walked away. A few minutes later, he was back, this time, with some of the other crewmen. These men all looked like my uncles who worked construction, thick arms folded across broad chests. They stood like a wall with feet planted.

One of the teenagers noticed the men in the shadows watching them. He nudged the guy next to him. They both turned. They now stood taller, straighter. They planted their feet, eyes narrowed, fists clenched. Mom looked from the crewman to the teenagers and shifted where she sat. Dad looked, up over the heads, gave a nod to the crewman but did not move.

He stayed, leaning relaxed against that rail and continued his conversation with those teenagers. They talked the entire trip. Finally, the horn blew, which called the crewmen back to their stations because we were coming into the dock. Mom got us going with, uh,  “Get your stuff together! Come on, let’s go.”

Dad said, with a smile, “It was nice meeting all of you. You fellas take care.”

“Yeah, you too,” was the reply. And those teenagers headed down the stairwell and we made our way off the boat and back to Uncle Ed’s house. That summer of 1964, my family traveled east and we met really nice people. They’re called New Yorkers.

Escape to Freedom – Germany 1941

by Storyteller Judy Sima

 

Story Summary:

 Judy Sima tells the story of her mother, Elsa Mosbach. She relates the events leading to Elsa’s escape from Germany during WWII, her encounter with the Gestapo following Kristallnacht or the Night of the Broken Glass, and how she used her father’s WWI medals to gain her father’s release from Buchenwald Concentration Camp.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Escape-to-Freedom–Germany-1941

Discussion Questions:

  1.  What can you do to stop religious prejudice?
  2.  What would you do if a family member was imprisoned because of his or her religion?
  3.  What lessons have you gained from studying about the Holocaust?
  4.  Should America accept refugees who are persecuted for their religious beliefs? Does it make a difference what that religion is?

Resources:

 Themes:

  • Immigration
  • Jewish Americans/Jews
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • War

Full Transcript:

Hi, I’m Judy Sima. My mother’s name was Elsa Mosbach. She was born January 5th, 1912. This is her story and I’d like to share it with you as she may have told it.

I stood on the deck of the old German steamship looking back. As we pulled away from the busy Lisbon, Portugal Harbor, tears were streaming down my cheeks and there was a lump the size of an apple in my throat. And I felt as if my heart would break even though my husband’s warm, protective arms were wrapped around me. There was no one to wave goodbye to us. We left our families behind in Nazi Germany and I didn’t know if I’d ever see my mother or my father or my younger brother again.

It was summer of 1941. I was 29 years old and I had never been more than a couple of days journey from my hometown and here I was on a ship bound for America. And I didn’t even know a word of English. My husband, Paul, and I left our home in Cologne at the beginning of the summer. We couldn’t take much with us. Nothing of value. So, I packed our suitcases full of clothing and knickknacks and photo albums. We said goodbye to our parents. I was a seamstress and I made myself all new dresses and even hats to match. We said goodbye to our parents. And we boarded the train bound for Portugal. It was a long trip and it took many days. It was a very difficult trip.

The ship we were on was called the Nyassa. It was built in 1906 and carried over 2,000 passengers, most of them are immigrants like us. We traveled for a long time and I was seasick for most of that 10-day journey. But I didn’t care. I was just glad to be out of Germany. You see, we were Jews. German Jews. Jews had been in Germany since the middle ages. My parents, my grandparents, my great grandparents, were born in Germany. My father earned medals fighting on the side of Germany during the Great War of 1912, 1914 to 1918. He was proud of those medals. My husband and I couldn’t wait to raise our children in Germany. We thought of ourselves as Germans first and Jews second.

But when Adolf Hitler came to power in 19, 1933 he put an end to all of that. Laws were passed that took away our ability to earn a living, our right to own property, our citizenship, and our dignity. Jewish children couldn’t go to school with Christian children. And Christian doctors could not treat Jewish patients. We couldn’t even go to public places like the movies or the theatre or a beach or a park. We, things, every day, friends and neighbors disappeared and we never saw them again. And the words “Sarah” and “Israel” were stamped on our passports identifying us as Jews. We knew we had to leave but it wasn’t easy.

We had to put our names in a lottery and when our number came up, we would be allowed to apply for exit visa. And once we had that exit visa, we would have to find a country that was willing to take us in. We wanted to go to America, so, we had to find someone who could sign an affidavit proving that they had enough money in the bank to support us, if we couldn’t earn a living, if we couldn’t take care of ourselves. It took us five years and during that time came the most terrifying nights of our lives.

November 9th and 10th, 1938, Kristallnacht. Crystal Night in English sounds pretty but it means in German, the night of the broken glass. German thugs and hoodlums went on a rampage and they destroyed over seventy-five hundred Jewish businesses, schools, cemeteries, and hospitals. Hundreds of synagogues were burned down to the ground as the police and fire stood… firefighters stood by to make sure that only the Jewish buildings were destroyed. A hundred Jews were murdered and thirty thousand more were rounded up and sent to forced labor camps and concentration camps. My husband and I, we huddled in our small apartment, listening to the screams and the gunshots and the breaking glass and the police sirens.

And then, in the middle of the night, the phone rang. It was my mother. She was hysterical. The Nazis had made her and my father and the Jews of our village watch their synagogue burn down to the ground. And then, they took my papa away. I said, “But they’re making is mistake. Papa was a war hero,” and I promised my mother that I would come as soon as I could to my hometown and find papa and bring him home.

Early the next morning, after Kristallnacht, after Crystal Night, I boarded the train and headed for my hometown of Beuthen, Germany, which was near the Polish border. And all the time I thought about my papa. He was big and strong. He was my hero and a German hero too. Kaiser Wilhelm himself had given him the medals. And as a little girl, I used to wear them around our apartment. When I got off the train, at first, I didn’t notice anything unusual, but as I walked toward my neighborhood, I began to see the devastation. There was the kosher butcher; there was nothing but a gaping hole. The same with Mr. Rubenstein’s dress shop and the bakery where I used to get cookies from Mrs. Goldberg. And now the cookies were all trampled underground. And then I came to a huge pile of smoldering rubble. Our beautiful synagogue with the twin columns and the beautiful ornate arch and the Spanish mosaics was gone. Simply gone.

When I reached my street, I could see my papa’s shoe store. The glass was broken. Counters were overturned, shoes were strewn everywhere, and on the walls, in bright yellow paint were the words “Jude, Jude, Jude,” Jew, Jew, Jew. I climbed the stairs to our apartment above the, above the shoe store and let myself in. My beautiful Mutti, my mother, was huddled in the corner, a glazed look in her eyes. I put my arms around her and said, “Mutti, I will find papa and I will bring him home. I will bring him home.”

And then I went to their bedroom and pulled out the top drawer of my father’s dresser. And there were the two boxes just where I knew they would be. Inside was the Hindenberg Cross and the Iron Cross. I put the, I put the medals in my pocket. And then I straightened my shoulders, and put on a fresh coat of lipstick, adjusted my hat, and I walked down the stairs, and marched the three blocks to the Gestapo office. I pulled open the heavy wooden door. There at the end of the hall, stood a soldier at attention and as I came closer, he clicked his heels and raised his hand and said, “Heil, Hitler.”

I said, “There’s been a mistake. They took my papa last night. Please, I must see the Commandant.” The soldier looked at me up and down, but I didn’t waver. I just stared him straight in the eye until he finally opened the door behind me and let me into the Commandant’s office.

The Commandant was writing on some papers; he didn’t even look up. I said, “There’s been a mistake. Last night they took my papa, George Lachmann. He’s a good German soldier. He won these medals. Kaiser Wilhelm gave him these medals himself.”

The Commandant didn’t even look up he just said, “Rouse, rouse,” out, out.

I said, “But I’ve got money. I’ve got money.” I took money out of my pockets and I threw them at him.

Finally, he looked up and he said, “He’s been sent to Buchenwald but I’ll see what I can do. Come back in a week.”

I left the Gestapo office but was afraid to go home. I came back day after day and waited. And I don’t know how many days I waited. And finally, just when I was about to give up hope, the door to the Gestapo office opened and out came my papa. He was stooped over, he’d lost weight, he was haggard, he hadn’t shaved in days, his clothes were torn, he had a bruise on his face. But he was safe. At least, for now.

Soon we’ll be docked in New York City. So, I got up early and took my shower and came back and put on one of the new dresses I have made. The lavender, rayon dress with white box pleats that flared out at the bottom. My husband whistled. I looked fabulous. I was going to be very fashionable in my new country. We went down to breakfast but I couldn’t eat. I had just butterflies in my stomach because I was so nervous. We went down to the third-class passenger deck and people were milling around. And the sun was blazing down on the blue-black sea. And off of the distance, off in the horizon, we could see the tops of tall buildings. And then suddenly, someone pointed and shouted. And there, coming out of the sea, was a tiny gold flame. And as we got closer, we could see that flame was held aloft in a silvery green torch held by a magnificent woman with a crown of seven spikes, a green rock gown that flowed to the pedestal below. The Statue of Liberty. Everyone cheered. The fog horns blew and the seagulls welcomed us with their piercing calls. I looked at my husband, the tears in his eyes matched the ones that were streaming down my cheeks. We didn’t know then that we would never see our parents again. But we were free. We had escaped. We were truly free. And we were ready to begin a new life in America.

California’s Arts-In-Corrections: Hope in the Midst of Madness

by Storyteller Michael D. McCarty

 

Story Summary:

Michael joins a program to teach storytelling in a California prison. He learns much about the men there as well as the power of storytelling.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Californias-Arts-In-Corrections-Hope-in-the-Midst-of-Madness

Discussion Questions:

  1.  How can the arts improve the situation for inmates in prison?
  2. Why is it important for men who are imprisoned to know that their stories are important?
  3. What role might storytelling play in parole hearings?

Resource:

Themes:

  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

My name is Michael McCarty. Since September, I’ve been working in prisons in California’s Central Valley teaching storytelling to inmates. And it’s been an amazing education for me because all I knew about prisons was the Shawshank Redemption. Well, one of the things I found out in prisons is that the prisons in Level 4 are divided by race. And then, within race, by gang. So, one of the guys in my class, I called him, Big D, was a young guy, in a juvenile facility got transferred to a major prison, had a black cellmate. One day, he’s out in a yard, a group of skinheads, come up to him and say, “You got to get a white cellmate.”

He said, “Well, I don’t mind.”

They said “Well, we do. If you don’t have a white cellmate by tomorrow, we’re going to kill you.” And that’s the way that was. And he got himself a white cellmate.

Now, things are divided up. At the same time with this program, with this arson corrections program, things happen. So, I’ve got these guys in my class; four black guys, one Latino. And Latino guy sits a couple of chairs away from the black guys. They all acknowledge each other, but it’s clear that some separation. One day, when he’s telling his story, he tells the story, how his best friend growing up was black. Then things happen. He ended up in prison, this Latino gentleman. One day, he finds out there’s about to be a throwdown between the blacks and Latinos. And on that same day, his friend, his black friend, is in the prison. And he said, “I stopped believing in God, a long time ago. But I asked, ‘God, please don’t let my friend be here when this throwdown goes down.’” And the next day his friend was transferred. So, he told that story and the black guys in that class had a very positive reaction to him.

So, got another guy in my class doing 20 something to life. Been in prison for over 20 years, since he was a juvenile. Very frustrated. Feels he’s being judged still by what he had done over 20 years ago. And he says, “I’ve changed.” And he has issues with the corrections officers in general, but with the white corrections officers in particular. When it’s his turn to tell the story in my class, he rants. He’s angry. One day, we’re sitting around doing our talk story thing, and he remembers this corrections officer, white correction officer, that, he’d met when he first came into the prison system as a juvenile. And this guy would talk to him and say you need to stop this gang bang and then get away from all this. And in time he did it. Well, over his time in prison, he kept encountering this corrections officer and every time he encountered him, he’d pull him in on projects, positive things. And this guy, who I call WP, found out that when he would see his name, he would say, “I know this guy. He’s a good guy.” Well, that became a theme. One time he comes into a prison, finds out that this corrections officers, that he calls the men, and he pulls them into a program, that’s like Scared Straight without the scared. And. Again, he’s doing positive things. Once, he found this story, when it came his turn to tell a story he wasn’t rant’n.

And this was done. This video was done and put on the website of one of the organizations that I’m working with. This lieutenant in the prison had to view, to approve the video before it went on. Well, he was watching it and I watched him. I was there when he was going over it. And I watched him watching this video. He was looking out for gang signs or anything like that. And so initially, he was very stern as he watched, very serious. When this guy starts telling his story, all of a sudden it was, “Oh,” a leaning forward, story trance happening. And him saying, “Wow!” He connected with that story. That’s one of the things that happens with storytelling in general. But with the storytelling and the prisons, this has been an amazing thing.

But check this out. The young man, who was in the prison from the juvenile facility and told by the skinheads that he have, he had to have a white cellmate, well, he was in my class, a couple of times in the last few months. Now, he’s in a level two facility where all of that stuff is nonexistent. He’s in a gospel choir with a bunch of black guys. He’s in my class and he is telling stories and helping others to find their stories. This has been an amazing project. It’s been amazing education for me.

We’ll leave you with one last little story. Got a guy who’s also doing life for committing a murder. He did a breakdown, an analysis of his crime, and he developed a workshop. He broke down all the things in his life. Things that he had no control over, things that he brought into his own life. And he put together a workshop and he calls, These Sticks. And he has people either bring up a stick or he gets a stick depending on if it was something that came into his life beyond his control, or something that he had control over. And he puts the sticks in a spot, a pile. And he says how these sticks were the things that accumulated, that would become the fire, that was the murder he committed. And then he did a further analysis. What could have stopped this? What could have prevented this? And to his mind it was forgiveness. Forgiveness would have been a water that would have put out the fire or kept the fire from happening in the first place. And he does this workshop with perpetrators of crimes, and victims or the families of victims, to help them get further insight into understanding what happened to their loved ones. Story is so powerful! It’s so amazing that these things happen in a prison.

And I lied. I’m going to end with one more story. This guy sings and he sings beautifully. Sings gospel. These officers and inmates, he did a concert for. There were four officers who didn’t make it. The next day they came and they said, “Will you sing for us?” And he sang a couple of songs. And like I said, I heard this guy sing. He is amazing. The officers left. One came back later and said, “I got to thank you for what you did for me.”

He said, “I just sang some songs.”

“No, no. You don’t understand. I was going to commit suicide until I heard your songs.”

And I told him, “Think about this. You’re in prison and you saved a life. The life of an officer.” And that is the power of story. And that’s the end of that.

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.

Everybody and Nobody: Racial Default Thinking

by Storyteller Andy Offutt Irwin

 

Story Summary:

 When Andy was a child living in the Deep South, he visited some of his family in Colorado. A woman out there told Andy, “Everybody in Georgia is a bigot.” This put him on the road to thinking about Racial Default Thinking. Every day this informs his storytelling.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  Everybody-and-Nobody-Racial-Default-Thinking

Discussion Questions:

  1. In what ways may you be guilty of “racial default” thinking and conversation?
  2. What does an “all-American” person look like?
  3. What does it mean to be ethnocentric? What are ways we can rise above ethnocentrism?

Resources:

  •  Discrimination by Default: How Racism Becomes Routine by Lu-in Wang
  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
  • Report – Structural Racism and Community Building
  • The Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change
  • https://www.aspeninstitute.org/sites/default/files/content/docs/rcc/aspen_structural_racism2.pdf

Themes:

  • Crossing Cultures
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

Hi, I’m Andy Offutt Irwin and I call this little talk “Everybody and Nobody.” When I was, uh, uh, 12 years old in 1970, the summer that I was 12 years old, my adult cousin flew me out to Denver to spend a whole month with him and his wife. This is a very big deal for me and it was the very first time I was on an airplane. But, most importantly, it was the very first time I was ever out of the South. He had a lot of kids in his neighborhood and I played with those kids and we had a great time. And it was Kool-Aid time or whatever and we went into one of the kids’ house and we were all full of chatter and my accent really flew through. My accent was very, very thick when I was a kid. And one of the moms, the mom there in that house, looked at me and she said, “Where are you from?”

I said, “I’m from Georgia.”

And she said, “Everybody from Georgia is a bigot! Everybody from Georgia is a bigot!”

I didn’t have the tools to respond to her and I couldn’t go on and express how hurt that made me feel. But that “everybody” stuck with me. Everybody’s a bigot.

A lot of years later, I was talking to my very nice aunt, who is a very kind person and she and I, actually, are very close. And she was talking about the home that she and her husband had built in 1940, way out in the country, in Southeast Newton County and it was a rural area.

She said, “Well, when we built it, there were no suburbs around here that… like there are now. And there was only a black neighborhood. Nobody was out here.”

Nobody was out there. It was just a black neighborhood; they’re nobody. And that “everybody” and that “nobody” came together. Everybody’s a bigot. Nobody is out here!

And that set me to thinking about racial default thinking. Racial default thinking is a sociological term coined by the great sociologist of DeRee Univ… It’s sensible. All right. I made it up. Racial default thinking informs my main character, Marguerite Van Camp.  Now Marguerite is a white lady; she is 85 years old and only recently graduated from medical school. She named her hospital, “Southern White Old Lady Hospital” and she explains it like this.

“Well, when I was 40 years old, my girlfriends and I, we all decided to go to New York together. No husbands, no children, just the girls who were turning 40. And none of us had ever been north of Virginia. We had never been out of the South. And we got in my husband Charles’ Plymouth and we drove all the way up and we encountered nothing but nice people. Because if you go around the world expecting people to be nice to you, they’ll usually be nice to you. It’s true, young people. Anyway, we… everyone was nice until we went to the Broadway show that we were going to go see and I went to the box office and I talked to the lady at the box office. I said, “We’re here to see this play “Man of La Mancha.”

She said, “It’s not a play; it’s a musical!”

“Oh, bless you for telling me! Well, these ah in the name of Marguerite Van Camp.”

And she said, “Where are you from?”

I said, “We’h all from Georgia.”

She said, “Everybody from Georgia’s a bigot.”

“Oh,” I said, “Oh! Oh, do you mean the white people or everybody?”

And I get to have Marguerite do that for me. And she gets to do that for the 12-year-old kid in me. And that’s why she’s around. And that’s why she helps us all with understanding racial default thinking. Marguerite, being a recovering racist.

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!”

Seriously…WHAT DID YOU CALL ME?!

by Storyteller Onawumi Jean Moss

 

Story Summary:

 While getting a passport to prepare for a trip abroad, Onawumi Jean discovered that her name is not on her birth certificate. Her aunt is able to clear up the mystery by disclosing a concession Onawumi’s mother made to get along and keep her job in the Jim Crow South. As an adult, Onawumi arranges a naming ceremony where she is able to honor her past and celebrate her creative present and future.

 For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Seriously…WHAT-DID-YOU-CALL-ME

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Why are names important? What do they say about our identity and the people who name us?
  2. How did Onawumi Jean’s mother’s concession help her “get along” in the Jim Crow South?
  3. If you were going to choose another name for yourself, what would it be and why?

Resources:

  •  American Nightmare: The History of Jim Crow by Jerrold M. Packard
  • The Name Book: Over 10,000 Names – Their Meanings Origins and Spiritual Significance by Dorothy Astoria

Themes:

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

Full Transcript:

Hello, my name is Onawumi Jean Moss and I’m going to be doing a reading from a one woman play that I’m doing that’s actually inspired by my own life. It is inspired by the fact, well, let me just get started. This is a reading from, “Seriously, what did you call me?”

The year is 1998 and I have been invited to the Dunya Storytelling Festival in Rotterdam. Hello. You see, I’ve been dreaming of travelling abroad for years but the truth to be told, I’ve only travelled in the United States of America. I’m just saying. I decided I’d call my friend B.J. She has been trying to get me to go abroad for years. She wanted me to go to Africa one year. She just wanted me to go somewhere. So I give her a call.

“Hallelujah!” I knew she’d love it. “So you going abroad. My goodness.” She’s got a gravelly voice but that woman is known on three continents for helping poor people get over the forces that have held them down. She’s quite remarkable. B.J. stands for bold justice. “So you’re going abroad. Well, hurry up and don’t stop. I know you.  Get your passport. It’s pretty straight forward. Just go get it and keep me posted cause I do think I just felt the earth tremble. Could be coming to an end.”

I move quickly to do what B.J. has asked me to do. So, I go to the post office and I get all the forms that verify I say who I say I am. And then I start to completing them. I find out I need my birth certificate. I haven’t seen that in…ever. So I sent for it. It came and surprise, surprise… the name Jean, the name I have been called all my life, is not on my birth certificate. Whaaaat? Seriously? I think about calling my cousin Eloise. She is our family historian and she is very tight lipped. I know that as soon as I call her, here’s what I’m gonna hear. “Lord, Lord, child. Some words, if spoken, will make the wheels fall off the wagon.” But I still plead with her. And you know what she does? She says,  “You know, you haven’t flown home in a long time.” And then she starts bringing me up to date on who gave birth. Who got sick. Who recovered. And who died. That, I don’t know these folks is not here nor there. She is my cousin Eloise and she is my favorite, favorite elder.

So after she stops being the town crier I say,  “Cousin Eloise, how come Jean is not on my birth certificate?”

And she says, “Lord, Lord, Jeanie cat, that’s water under the bridge. Now why are you worried about this now?”

“Because I’ve been sitting here with my birth certificate and it says, ‘Carolyn Durham.’  It does not say Jean and I want to know why. If Mama was still with us, I would ask her why Jean is not on my birth certificate.” It was quiet in my office and quiet on the phone. And then we both just burst out laughing. (Laughing) Because we both knew that Mama would not tolerate being interrogated by anybody, let alone her children. But something in that moment caused my cousin Eloise, whom we learned to call cousin Weez, cause when we were children we couldn’t say Eloise. So she still calls me Jeannie cat. And I still call her cousin Weez.

Cousin Weez said, “Well, when Hon,” that’s what you call Mama. “When Hon went back to work for the Taylors a few weeks after you were born, the oldest daughter wanted to know why you were named Carolyn and not after her. Everybody thought the child was just being cute and they weren’t taking her seriously. But every time Hon went to work, the child just would fret something awful. So to keep the peace, Hon told her she’d call you Jean. Well, what your mama meant was she’d just call you Jean when she was at their house. But we all started calling you Jean not realizing that that would be the only name that you would come to know yourself by. We just weren’t thinking about the long run.”

Well, I was outdone. I felt my legs buckle. This is madness. I thought to myself, “I’m on the threshold of becoming a nationally, internationally known storyteller. Can you imagine it? And because my mother felt it was necessary to do because she wanted to keep her job. I am having to go through hoops because I, a little girl, a little white girl who felt entitled, had a “do what I say’ tantrum and when she got her way, I was given no more thought. I used to babysit for her. And she called my name with detachment only to tell me, “Fetch this, fetch that.”  My family’s attempt to mark what happened backfired.

And so they didn’t realize that I wouldn’t know my real name. But still they helped me get to where I am today, at one of the most prestigious institutions on the planet and with the tools I would need to be successful. The wisdom of knowing how to survive, is to know how to overcome Jim Crow rule. And that wisdom is hard earned. That scene in Roots, when Kunta Kinte was being beaten because he refused to be called by the name Toby, just stayed in my mind. But when he had the help he needed, he not only survived, he thrived. I want my name to reflect my African and American heritage.

Since miscegenation has erased my physical connection to Africa I thought. I need someone who really knows me, to name me. And I decided that that person is, Dr. Rowland Abiodun, professor of art history and black studies at Amherst College. When I ask Dr. Abiodun to name me, he got very quiet on the phone. And I thought, “Oh my!  He’s not interested in doing this.” Well, it turns out I was wrong.

When he spoke, he said these words, “I will have to pray about it.” And he hung up the phone. I couldn’t believe it. I never thought anybody would have to pray about naming you. Three days passed. I was a wreck but he called me back and he said that he would name me. And then he told me several foods that I had to come collect for the naming ceremony. My heart was racing. I collected all the foods. I invited my friends and my collaborators. Those of us who work for justice for a long time together and everybody came.

And when we gathered, Professor Abiodun stood and told us a story about naming that I will take with me for the rest of my days. He said when he was telling about the meaning of the foods I had collected. He said these words, “Omi. Omi means water. The water, which you are supposed to drink. The water that destiny has set for you to drink will never flow past you. Iyo. Salt. Maggots are never found in salt. May your body never harbor decay or disease. Oyin. Honey. No one refuses honey. That taste of honey will be in your mouth. Your presence will bring joy and happiness to all you meet.” I felt my spirit soar in a way that I never felt it before. On hearing all he told me, about the way the foods related to my name. And then he calmly guided us through the ancient and untitled ritual.

I remember singing to myself.  Amazing, amazing! This is amazing, amazing, amazing. This is amazing!

Then he said, “In Yoruba culture, one is a stranger until one is given a name. Your name gives you presence and beauty and power. With this name, you will no longer be a stranger. Onawumi, one who is creative and loves to create. Oshunokami, one whose deity is the great river goddess, Oshun. She is the one, who holds the mirror of truth. She is the one, who sits by the doors of the temple. She is the one who braids hair and speaks wisdom. Olyin, whose words are healing and sweet as honey.

Amazing. Amazing! This is amazing, amazing, amazing. This is amazing!

In keeping with Yoruba tradition those gathered were invited to speak my name several times so that my presence, my beauty, and my power would be undeniable. Looking back, using the rearview mirror that my cousin Eliose, Cousin Weez, was always famous for saying. When someone said, “I don’t look back.” She would say to me and to the children around her, “Just remember children, there’s a reason that a car has a rear, rearview mirror. When you going forward, don’t forget to look in the rearview mirror because what’s back there might help you get along further.”

And so, I have looked back on my own life. Because I found my name Jean was not on my birth certificate but now it is on everything. And it is my legal name but it is also my spiritual name. My name is Onawumi, one who creates and loves to create. Jean, the one, the name my mother gave me to keep the peace. It means gift of God and my mother said it means gifted by God. Moss, the name that I share with my two sons and my daughter. My name is Onawumi Jean Moss.  Amazing, amazing! I am amazing, amazing, amazing, amazing!  And so are you.