At 14, storyteller Laura Packer visited friends living in the rural south and encountered negative assumptions about Judaism for the first time. How she responded could have made the situation much worse, but she found a way to keep her dignity and maybe break down some ancient, inaccurate beliefs at the same time. (more…)
In 2010 when the members of the Memphis Islamic Center bought property on the street nicknamed Church Road, they thought they’d have a hard time proving to their Christian neighbors that they were a peaceful community. When the pastor of the Methodist church across the road learned of the purchase, he didn’t know what he should do. (more…)
While Joseph’s father and his neighbor debate whether a good Jewish family in a New York suburb should have a Christmas tree, 6-year-old Joseph plots how to ride the family’s English setter, Freckles, the way cowboys ride horses in the Westerns. Joseph succeeds – for about a second and a half – but then the tree, the decorations, the lights, the jar full of pennies, the glass and the cat go flying! Joseph’s neighbor, a conservative Jew, surveys the disaster and pronounces that this is proof the Sobols should not have had a tree!
What is the difference between orthodox, conservative and reform Judaism? Jewish identity can have religious, ethnic, cultural, linguistic, and national components to it – what does it mean that Joseph’s father was raised in a non-religious, sectarian Jewish household? Are you a member of a religious or cultural group that has different ways of practicing within it?
Why would Joseph’s family want to have a Christmas tree even though they weren’t Christians?
Joseph mentions people who were his father’s heroes – Emma Goldman, Tolstoy, Gandhi? What did these people have in common?
Who is a Jew? An Introduction to a Complex Question by Rabbi Juan Bejarano-Gutierrez
The Many Faces of Judaism: Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform by Gilbert S Rosenthal
Family and Childhood
My name is Joseph Sobol.
And let’s say it’s holiday season, 1961. My dad and our neighbor Harold are arguing over the true meaning of Christmas for Jews. Harold is saying, “So what’s with the… What’s with the Christmas tree? How’s a nice Jewish boy like you having the Christmas tree in the living room?”
Harold is our close friend and adviser on all things Jewish. He’s the most conservative Jew we know in our neighborhood. Conservative on a spectrum that runs from orthodox to conservative to reform to us.
My dad is a psychotherapist and a militant proselytizing agnostic. “Agnostic,” he says, “is someone who is not afraid not to know.”
Well, Harold has some different opinions on this. He works for the United Jewish Appeal in New York City. His wife runs the nursery school, of which I’m a recent graduate. It’s 1961, a.d. year of somebody’s lord.
Dad says, “The tree is for my son so he doesn’t miss out.”
Harold’s not satisfied with this answer. So, they sipped their cognac. They smoke. They talk on and on about these questions. Meanwhile, his son, me, I’m over in the corner of the room playing with the tree. The tree is magnificent. I adore the tree. The tree to me is like a god. If by god, you mean something immeasurably magnificent and powerful that’s been chopped down and stuffed into a space too small for it, like a church or a living room. But we don’t go to church. We don’t even go to synagogue.
So, all I have is this once a year encounter with the sacred tree. But I’m six and I don’t know how to worship sitting still so, I’m playing with the tree. I’m hiding behind it; sneaking around it. Sneaking up on our dog Freckles curled up on the rug in front of the tree. I mean to ride him!
My mother sticks her head out of the kitchen and says, “Danny, back up. You can’t ride the dog!”
I turn around. I disagree. I think I can ride the dog if they let me train him. Freckles is an English Setter, white with orange spots. He’s the least Jewish dog that’s ever been bred. Goyish is the term for Yiddish. He’s the most goyish dog in the world but they sent him to obedience training school to learn all these useless things like sitting down, lying down, standing up, fetching a stick. Why can’t they let me do the most natural thing in the world? Ride my dog. He’s big enough; I’m small enough. He loves me. I know it. He lets me know this every day when I come home from school. What more gracious act of love than to take me upon his back?
So, this is my plan, my training model. I’m going to catch him while he sleeps. I’m going to sneak up behind him, preferably while he’s sleeping in front of the Christmas tree ’cause it’s easy to access. I’m going to put one foot behind his back; one foot in the curl of his belly. I’m going to reach down, take him by the collar and pull, “Giddyap!” And off we’ll go like the Lone Ranger and Silver across the living room. Hi-ho, Freckles! And awaaay! After that, I have no plan.
But before I can get to him, out of the kitchen rumble’s Lilly, the Glaswegian au pair girl. She’s solid muscle. She’s got a righteous leer and a Chesterfield hangin’ out of the corner of her mouth. She’s on fire. “Git away from that dog, ya creepin’ divil!”
And I take off behind the couch. Freckles jumps up, runs back to the laundry room where he was born a year and a half ago in a box by the sink. That’s his safe place.
Lilly grabs me up from behind the couch by the collar, plants me between Harold and my dad and said, “Sit still and listen to yer elders. You might learn, learn somethin’!” Well, off she goes back to the kitchen.
Harold and Dad are still arguing about the tree. “So, what’s with the goyish tree again? Ya haven’t explained.”
Dad says, It’s not a goyish tree, Harold. We converted it.”
Harold says, “How do ya figure that?”
Dad says, “We cut the tip off before we put the star on top.” Bada-boom.
Harold says, “But it’s a five-pointed star not a six. And anyway, why can’t you be content just to worship Hanukkah like the rest of the Jews?”
Dad says, “It doesn’t appeal to me.”
And I understand this. Hanukkah really, when you come right down to it, is sort of a second-tier Jewish holiday that’s been promoted by American Jews. They have something to go up against the Christians at Christmas. But decoratively and narratively, it’s a little bit lacking. Decoratively, I mean, consider the optics. What’s with that little chintzy eight-pointed candelabra next to this magnificent indoor tree?
And then, the story line is the same story as every other Jewish holiday, one after another. It goes basically like this. Jews just want to be Jews. And everybody else wants them to knock it off and fit in with the rest of them. So, the Jews call upon their God and a whole lot of people get smited, one after another. It’s Persians. It’s Egyptians, it’s Greeks. It’s Romans, it’s Nazis, it’s soldiers of the Inquisition. When is it gonna end?
And, Dad, when you come right down to it, he just wanted to fit in too. He was brought up in a secular Jewish household where their heroes were people like the anarchist, Anna Go… uh, Emma Goldman, or pacifists like Tolstoy and Gandhi, not to mention that funky Jewish community organizer from Galilee named Jesus.
Dad says, “I don’t have a problem with the birth of Jesus, Harold. Who can object to peace, love and understanding. It was a great moment in Jewish radical politics.”
Harold says, “Tell it to the Nazis. Tell it to the KKK. Tell it to the John Birch Society.” And he’s winning the argument.
But I’ve stopped listening the moment I see Freckles’ long, spotted nose come out from behind the end of the foyer there, back into the living room. I see him sniff both ways for Lilly (sniff, sniff). And now he shambles up, back into the living room, clickety clack across the floor, over the white rug, to his favorite spot in front of the tree. He turns himself around two and a half times. And then folds up in a nice doggy ring, puts his face on his paws and starts dreaming of chasing pheasants.
And the moment I feel myself ignored, I slip off the couch between Harold’s knees and the edge of the coffee table, over to the hearth of the unlit fireplace, across the hearth. Past the giant glass penny jug where my parents toss their pocket change when they come home from work every day. Over to the tree; and then I make the turn and I start toward Freckles. This is my chance; everybody’s busy.
I hear Lilly and my mom in the kitchen. I hear the clinking and clanking of pots and pans, the clunking of cabinet doors. I smell the roasting meats and the baking pies. I hear the drone of Dad and Harold and their endless Talmudic disputation.
And it’s just me and the dog. I’m the Secret Agent. I am the Lone Ranger and the Invisible Man. And this is my moment. I’m going to get to him. I’m going to plant one foot on the front of his belly, one in the small of his back. Then we’re gonna go. And I get there, I’m right there. I’m gonna ride him and I do… for about a second and a half. I get my feet planted. I reach for his collar. I, I shout, “Giddyap!”
Up he comes. His bony spine right in the middle of my crotch. Ow! Freckles leaps up. He starts bolting! He starts rearing back just like the Lone Ranger’s horse and he throws me backwards across the living room! Crash, onto the rug! Harold and my dad jump up, start running around the coffee table. Lilly and my mom come crashing out of the kitchen toward me. And Freckles, in a panic, leaps straight into the Christmas tree! In mid-air, he does a little flip and he manages to hit the tree, just a glancing blow, with his rump and his tail. But he’s got his big floppy paws caught in the wires of the Christmas tree lights so the tree rocks backward and forward. Freckles bounces off, goes careening into the penny jug, which hits the wall and explodes! Pennies and shards of glass all over, careening, spinning all across that part of the floor!
And now, in a slow, stately swoon, down comes the tree in a shower of spruce boughs, tinsel, little colored balls, flashing lights. It’s just like a beached whale, covers the whole end of the room.
Freckles is gone, back to the laundry room. There are four adults standing stock still, gaping at the destruction. I’m lying on my back with the wind knocked out of me, my eyes shut tight, waiting for a certain death.
And Harold, our Jewish neighbor, friend and adviser intones in his best rabbinical voice, “Terrible and mighty is the judgment of the Lord.”
Because she had grown up in a predominately white community during the turbulent Civil Rights years, when Mama Edie’s new friend, Renee, went to college she learned the pain of being treated as an outsider by some of the other African American students. But Mama Edie and Renee both learned that a strong sense of identity can combat bullying, provide a sense of direction and belonging and create meaningful bonds that can last a lifetime. (more…)
When Mama Edie and Mother Mary Carter Smith, Co-Founder of the National Association of Black Storytellers, Inc. enter the dark dungeons of Ghana, West Africa, where people were imprisoned for the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, unexpected things begin to occur. This story speaks to how one can perceive and be guided by just a small beam of light, finding strength, hope and direction despite barbaric and seemingly hopeless situations. (more…)
Noa arrived from Israel to America in 1990 the month Iraq invaded Kuwait and threatened to attack Israel. She arrived from a place where everyone walked around with boxes of gas masks in case they were attacked with mustard gas, to the quiet peaceful college town of Davis, California. To call it culture shock would not do it justice…
Here is the story of crossing over and learning to live in a culture where the perceptions of time, space and values are completely different from your own. (more…)
Brenda performs a children’s song in Japanese and is told to stop using “demonic language” and is called “a witch.” She is told by a producer that he is disappointed she isn’t a “real” Japanese. Unfortunately, the bias and ignorance Brenda encounters on the road is also visited on the next generation as Brenda learns that her son is mistaken for another Japanese American student who looks completely different from her son.
Why do some people approach differences with curiosity and respect and others react with ignorance and hate?
What would you do in Brenda’s place if you had been confronted with similar statements and actions? Have you experiences similar slights and biases?
Brenda is disappointed that her son is experiencing similar prejudices and invisibility? Do you think race relations are improving or getting worse? Why or why not?
Everyday Bias: Identifying and Navigating Unconscious Judgments in Our Daily Lives by Howard J. Ross
Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People by Mahzarin R. Banaji
Education and Life Lessons
Family and Childhood
Stereotypes and Discrimination
I’m Brenda Wong Aoki, and I’m the first nationally recognized Asian Pacific storyteller in the United States. I’ve been doing this for a living for the last 40 years. So, I wanted to share with you some stories about being on the road. Uh, one of the stories is about being called a witch. I was doing this song for a bunch of children in a school. It goes like this. It’s about a big fish and a little fish.
Okina sakana, suiei, suiei
Chisana sakana, suiei, suiei, suiei
Okina sakana, chisana sakana
You get the idea, right. So, I’m doing this story. And, um, the person around me says, “Don’t do that.”
And why… I’m, like, “Why?”
And he said, “Well, because the mothers think you’re doing a demonic incantation on their children. Please don’t do that.”
I said, “Okay.”
So, then I did my public concert and there were women in the audience with signs that said, “Witch, go home!”
I think they’re talking to me but I’m a professional storyteller so I go on. And I start telling my story and they start chanting, “Witch, go home! Witch, go home!” And they start pulling their kids out of the assembly, and the kids are crying and everybody’s… There’s chaos and they’re chanting, “Witch, go home! Witch, go home!
Witch, go home!”
And I just freak out, run into the dressing room, and I’m so shocked. And I look in the mirror. And I think, “Huuuh! Maybe I am a witch because nobody out there looks like me.”
So, I called my friend Eric, who is a priest, and I say, “Eric, you gotta come out here because people think I’m a witch out here.” Now Eric is a circuit rider in Nevada. This happened in Nevada. So, he has lots of churches, and he usually wears a Hawaiian shirt, and he’s in a big open jeep. And I said, “But don’t come like that. Come in your cossack. Come with your cross; you know, come looking churchy.
So, Father Eric puts… comes. And he looks like Jesus Christ on the back of a jeep. And he’s got his black Cossack, he’s got his cross, his blond hair was flying in the breeze, and he screeches up to where I’m performing. And all these people with placards go, “Oh, my xxx, the witch has the anti-Christ with her.
So, all Eric said, “Let’s just go get a beer.”
But that was one of my experiences. It happened several times to me throughout the country being called a witch, but it was a very innocent song. Another time I was at a reception in my honor, which was before the show, which is awkward because usually a performer likes to be preparing, warming up their voice. Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah! That kinda stuff, right. But if you’re at a reception before your performance, you can’t be doing that.
So, I’m trying to be polite and thank everybody for having me. And one of the society ladies comes up to me. You know the kind, starved to perfection.
She says, “Goodness, Brenda! It has been a delight working with you because, let’s face it, you speak such good English.”
And I said, “Well, thank you. I was born here.”
And she goes, “Uuuuh! Oh! No, no, no, no, no. I thought we bought a real one!”
And then she took me to the guy who paid the big bucks and he kind of looks like a great, big toad. He says to me, “What part Japan you from?”
I said, “I’m not from Japan. Actually, my name is Brenda Jean. I’m Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, and Scotch, and I was born in Salt Lake City, Utah.”
And he goes, “What part of Japan is Salt Lake City, Utah?”
I said, “It’s not in Japan; it’s in the United States.”
He goes, “Oh, that’s why your eyes aren’t as slanty as the rest.”
And I’m thinking, “Am I supposed to say thank you?”
Now I have to tell you another story. I’d just finished performing in New Orleans at the New Orleans Contemporary Art Center. Wonderful, standing ovation! I was doing Japanese ghost stories. And after the performance, this woman comes up to me and says, “You know, we’re having so much problems between Vietnamese and blacks that could you come to East New Orleans and tell some Japanese ghost stories?”
So, I go to the high school and it’s, like, one of those high schools, you know, with, like, like, guards everywhere. And they got German Shepherds sniffin lockers to look for drugs and things. And I go to the auditorium, and there’s hundreds and hundreds of kids and I look at them. They’re all wearing baseball caps and baggy clothes and they’re just kinda… uh, un. And they’re all Vietnamese, and I’m thinking, “Well, where’s all the African-American kids?” But anyway, I start my Japanese ghost stories.
And you couldn’t… there’s just silence, absolute silence. And when I’m finished there’s, like, one applause (clap, clap) and they can’t wait to get out of there.
And I’m thinking, “Wow! Great! I do a free performance and I bomb.” And I’m sitting there. I think, “What a waste of effort!”
And this girl comes up to me and she’s typical f.o.b., fresh off the boat. Immigrant young girl with glasses and books. And, you know, over… her clothes are too big. And I think, “Great! Not only did I have to do a free gig, but now some bookworm’s gonna ask me for a dissertation on Japanese theater. Uuh, huh!”
And she goes, “Miss Aoki? We don’t means to be dissing you but this is East Nawlins. Here we don’t gots to be Vietnamese. We gots to be black.”
And that was like, bam, slap, slap, slap, slap, enlightenment! I should not have been sittin up there tryin to tell these kids Japanese ghost stories. I should have been tellin ’em what it was like for me growin up in my mom and dad’s store. Bein the eldest kid, havin no money and bein poor. And knowin what it felt like not to have money, and havin people look at you. And it woulda been so much better. Sometimes the personal is so perfect.
The last story I want to tell you is about MaK.K. I have a son Kai Kane. Well, he grew up in an all African-American neighborhood. Very ghetto, crack house next door, arms dealer across the street. We all get along. It’s just that K.K. was the only non-black kid on the block. So, all of his friends didn’t want to call him by his real name, which is Kai Kane. And they said, “We’re just gonna call you K.K. So. K.K. grew up playing basketball and, you know, everything with African-American kids. Then he gets a scholarship to this fancy, white school on the other side of the bridge. Suddenly, there’s only two, uh, boys of color in his entire school. It’s Masashi, who’s from Japan, who’s very, very tall with straight hair and glasses. And K.K. who’s, uh, Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, and Scotch, and looks like a cherub with all these curls. And he’s very, very short and kinda chubby. And the school cannot tell ’em apart. They can’t tell the difference between Masashi and K.K. So, they just decide to call him MaK.K. So, from kindergarten to eighth grade, he’s MaK.K. along with Masashi. MaK.K. So fast forward.
My son is a dancer, and he’s dyslexic, and he’s got ADHD. So, he gets a scholarship to Stanford because they’re looking for another Steve Jobs and they thought that, you know, with all these learning things, he might be the new Steve Jobs.
And he just graduated with a Master’s in Cultural Psychology. And he tells me, at the celebration, there’s only four kids who graduated with a Master’s in Cultural Psychology at Stanford. This just happened a couple of weeks ago. The four kids: one’s an African-American girl, one’s a Filipino girl, two Asian boys – one’s from China, and one’s my son K.K. Okay, the boy from China is very, very short. K.K. is now very, very tall. And K.K. tells me, the whole time they’re in the Psych Department getting their Master’s, the secretary of the department, who controls everything, you have to be on her good side, could not tell him and Larry apart the whole time. And this is Stanford University, the best Psych Department in the country, and this is Cultural Psychology. So, isn’t it funny and sad how some things never change.
A poster appeared and words were being spoken on the school yard. “Tewas Go Home”! After hearing these words from other students and seeing the poster at the Trading Post, she needed answers. In a state of confusion, Eldrena asked her Tewa-Hopi grandmother, Nellie Douma, what those words meant. Why would her Hopi relatives talk that way? Was this land that they lived on in Arizona not their homeland? Go home to where? These were the questions she could not answer on her own.
Eldrena had never felt uncomfortable about going to school or where she lived. But after hearing these words from other students and seeing posters at the Trading Post, she needed to find out answers. This way of talking confused and scared her. But after hearing the “hand me down story”, it gave Eldrena a sense of pride and taught her about integrity and keeping one’s word no matter how much time passes.
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Tewas Go Home
Have you ever heard of the Tewas from Arizona or New Mexico?
Have you ever heard of Trading Posts? Do you know their purpose?
Has anyone ever made you feel uncomfortable or scared because of your heritage?
Do you know your family stories? Has a story ever given you a sense of empowerment?
When you have questions that make you uncomfortable, who do you go to?
How do you think Eldrena would have felt if she did not seek wisdom from her grandmother?
Resistance to Acculturation and Assimilation in an Indian Pueblo, p 59 by Edward P. Dozier
Language Ideologies and Arizona Tewa Identity, p 350-351 by Paul V Kroskrity
Education & Life Lessons
Family & Childhood
First Nations/Native Americans
Stereotypes & Discrimination
Taking a Stand & Peacemaking
Hello, my English name is Eldrena. My Tewa name is CooLu Tsa Weh. It means blue corn. I come from three Southwest Pueblo tribes in the United States. They are the Laguna, the Tewa and the Hopi.
I would like to share with you a personal story that occurred many years ago. It was during a time of awakening for me. It empowered me and gave me a sense of pride and belonging. It was a gift that I realized, later on, that my Saiya, which means grandmother in the Tewa language, she gave me so many years ago.
It happened when I was out on recess in the fourth grade. And all of a sudden, through the chattering and laughter, I heard, “Tewas, go home.” And I looked around, and I thought, “Why would somebody tell us to go home. School is still in session. If you go home, you could get in trouble.” So, I just didn’t pay attention.
But then later on, when my grandmother and I, Saiya, we were walking down to the trading post. It was a long ways from our house. It took about a mile of walking, and we lived in desert country so it was very hot. And when Saiya and I got to the trading post, she took her pottery in to sell. And the owner determined how much that pottery would cost and give her an idea of how much she could spend on groceries or whatever else she needed.
And as we were leaving the building, we started to walk up that long hill. Now remember, I said I was living in the desert country. So off to the left, there was, uh, sand that when you walked in it, it’s almost like it took you forever to go anywhere, so soft! And there were brush and cedar trees and not very many rivers or creeks. And if there were any, they were dry.
My Saiya… when we were leaving I noticed on a wooden post, there was stapled… This post held the streetlight. We didn’t have very many. So, it kind of stood out like a blinking light. This poster and it said, “Tewas, go home.”
I, I mentioned that to Saiya and I pointed it out to her. But when she read it, all she did was put her head down. She nodded; kinda made a sigh. And we walked on, but it would never leave me. They could never leave me, those words, I didn’t understand them. I was just a young girl, and so later on that evening, I brought it up again. I said, “Saiya, what does it mean by ‘Tewas go home?’ Isn’t this our homeland? Isn’t this where we come from?”
And she said to me, Granddaughter, “I’m gonna tell you a story that has been passed down among our people for over hundreds of years. Now sit and, and I will speak it to you.
A long time ago, there was a war that was called the Pueblo Revolt. And it happened where New Mexico is right now. That is where we Tewas came from. Now this war was not very good at the time. And when it ended, everything was peaceful. And so, our group of Tewas, our community, we were living with all the rest of the people.
But then the Hopis, where we live today, they were being attacked by raiding tribes. And they needed help. They remembered us as a warrior tribe. And so, they came a long ways to seek us out. And when they found us, they asked us to come and help them. But it took them several vili…visits before we understood what they were asking of us. This was gonna be a long journey of our people of long ago. And when an agreement happened, and the Tewas said, “Yes, we will come,” we had to leave behind the rest of the Tewa people from many different Pueblos. And so, we journeyed to the west to go make our new home among the Hopis. And the job that we were given was to protect them.
Now when the people came to the Hopi land there was one mesa that we came to. It is called First Mesa today, and on fa… First Mesa, there was only one village named Walpi. No other village was up there. It was high off the ground. The Spaniards used to call these things, uh, they call them today, mesas because they look like flat tables from a distance. And so, Walpi was on top of one of these mesas. Now, when the raiding tribes came, our people took care of them. It didn’t take long before they knew they were no longer going to keep attacking the Hopis because the Tewas were there now, and they were their protectors.
Now before our people had traveled to this land of the Hopis, they were told that they would be given new land. And, um, they would be taught how to grow crops off the fields… in the fields, and, um, they would be given clothes to wear until they could make their own.
Well, the Tewas thought that was gonna happen, but after a while, when everything started to settle down and no more fighting took place, the Hopis, um, started to rethink about what they had spoken. And instead of good land, they didn’t give us very good land. They didn’t take care of us at first very well. They didn’t give us food to eat that, that could nourish our bodies. And so, the Tewas began to think, “Well, maybe we need to move on. These Hopis are not keeping their word.”
Well, somehow, they say, the Hopi men found out about this, and it worried them. So, there was a meeting that was called between the two groups. And the Tewas thought about it and they prayed about it. And in the end, they decided that the only way they were going to stay, there at First Mesa, something had to happen. And so, they dug a hole right in the middle, and they asked the Hopi leaders to spit inside that hole. The Tewas spit on top, and it was covered up.
To this very day, there are rocks placed on top of each other to mark the spot. The Hopis asked, “Why was that done?” And they were told that the only way we would stay is from here on out, we will keep our word to never leave this land and to always be your protectors. But from here on out, you Hopis, even though we live side by side and we speak two different languages, you will never know our language. You will never know the ways of the Tewa.
And so, you see, Granddaughter, even to this very day, that word is still true. Now in my young mind, I thought to myself, “Well, that’s just a story. How could that still be true even to this day? Because up high on the mesa, the, the Walpis lived on the southern end and they gave land, uh, to the northern end of the mesa. And in the middle, the people got married and they built their houses there. And there was a combination of Tewa and Hopis that lived in that middle village. How could they not learn each other’s language?”
And then I remembered my aunt was married to one of my favorite uncles. And so, I went down, and I asked him. And I told him the story that Saiya said to me, and I said, “Uncle, is that true? You’re a Hopi man. You live with my aunt. She speaks Tewa and Hopi. Have you not learned anything from her?”
And then he thought about it and he said, “Now, Drena, whenever we are in the house, and I’m in the house, and your relatives come to visit, what language is spoken?”
I said, “Mmm, Tewa?” (“Yes” or… I’m sorry, not Tewa) “Hopi.”
“Yes, that’s right, Hopi. And so, when I leave, then what do they speak?”
“Um huh! So that is how they protect the language. As long as a Hopi is around, they do not speak Tewa. They speak the language of the Hopi, and me, I am not Tewa. So, I do not take part in anything that the Tewas do because that is not of my understanding, and it’s not for me. And that is why I don’t participate in the Tewa ways, in the ceremonies. Those are for your people, and I honor that.”
Well, that story happened a long time ago. And all I remember is my Saiya, when she finished her story, she said, “Drena, you know these things happened so many years ago, over 100 years ago, hundreds of years ago but this story is still told. It’s told in words, and it’s told in song. One of these days, we old ones are gonna be gone. And this story has to live on. The people have to be reminded that no matter, no matter how many time, uh, passes that we have to remember that our word is kept. And our people remain strong. And even though we’re separated from the Tewas of New Mexico that our cultural identity still stays intact. And all of these things, Drena, I give to you to pass on and to carry and to continue to tell.”
Karin never dreamed about marriage growing up because of her Japanese parents’ unromantic arranged marriage. But when her father had a severe stroke and fell into a profound state of dementia, her mother, who had very bad knees, struggled through her pain to go to the hospital every day for two months to teach him how to read, write, and talk again… until a miracle happened and Karin learned to appreciate her parent’s relationship.
Have you ever observed your parents’ marriage style? What do you think is the secret of a successful marriage?
Have you ever researched your family history? Are you interested in finding out about your parents’ childhood or your family roots?
Did you find any cultural differences between Japanese and American cultures in Karin’s story?
Japan-Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture by Paul Norbury
Picture Bride by Yoshiko Uchida
My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey by Jill Bolte Taylor
Education and Life Lessons
Family and Childhoods
Hi, my name is Karin Amano. I have been living in the U.S. for 26 years and I’ve been observing, uh, married American couples. And, uh, many of them meet each other, uh, when they are young, and get married, grow older together, but then they go different directions, and later, they divorce. But then, they meet the new partner and remarry.
And American married couples remain passionate towards each other even though they are middle aged. They kiss and hug, holding hands together, uh, unlike Japanese married couples. Uh, I never see my, my Japanese parents, uh, kiss and hug and holding hands together. Uh, many cases, Japanese couples marries and then they leave their relationship from, uh, deek… relationship behind to focus on their children. So, when I was young, I never, uh, dreamed of marriage growing up seeing my parents, uh, unromantic, arranged marriage.
Uh, well, my father used to tell me, “Well, when I was a about to meet your mom at the blind date set up my… by my relative, I expected that a pretty lady, uh, is showing up because I heard she was a student from, uh, Miss Bunka Fashion College. But when she showed up, I thought, ‘Wow! This woman has a unibrow!’ And I wasn’t attracted to her. But, um, my relatives are bugging me, saying, ‘Hey, you’re already 29. Why don’t you settle down!’ So, I reluctantly married your mom.”
So, uh… Well, my father was born in 1930, aa, as, uh, 10th child out of, uh, 11 children. He was smart and, um, handsome, very popular in his hometown. He went to a good college and he got the nice, nice job as a chemist at a big, a Japanese company. And, uh, at some point, he left his job and he started his, uh, own business, a shop for wrestling fans in Tokyo. And it was successful, so he became very wealthy.
And meanwhile, my mom was born in, uh, 1934. She was tall, and athletic, and very popular at school. Uh, she learned uh, uh, dressmaking at a fashion college. And when she met, my mom, uh… my father at the blind date, she thought, “Okay, he’s an intelligent and handsome man so I’m going to marry him. That’s okay.” So, they got married.
And at that time, my father had a girlfriend. They used to dance together at the dance hall. And they loved each other but my father knew he was not allowed to marry her because she’s not from a good family and she didn’t go to a good school. So, my father chose to marry my mom. And, uh, before long, he got the, a job and then my parents moved to a bigger city. And then, you know, uh, uh, the… they’re doing okay.
Uh, well, when I was 9, I remember my father had an affair. Um, he went back to his hometown for a class reunion and ran into, uh, his ex-girlfriend. And he felt sorry for her and, uh, she seemed miserable so he had an affair. And my mother seemed to be upset, but she didn’t divorce him. And then, several years later, uh, he had another affair with a woman who was a con artist. Uh, uh, she swindled him for, um, I don’t know, tens of thousand dollars. And my mother still didn’t divorce him. She said that, well, he got let go by the company so, you know, his, uh, anxiety, uh, made him do such a thing. Yes.
And then, when they were 70s, my mother made friend with this woman who was in her, uh, early 60s. Also happened to be a con artist. And then, uh, yeah, my mother, yeah, my parents lost a half-million dollars, uh, for a fake investment. So, at the age of 70, 75, I forgot, uh, they lost everything – assets and houses! They were broke. My father was angry at my mom but he didn’t divorce her over it.
And when my father was 81, uh, my mother found him on the floor, lying down on the floor, in the middle of the night. He had a severe stroke so he was carried into the hospital and he was in a coma for 8 days.
Um, when I went back to Japan, when I flew back to Japan, uh, he woke up but he wasn’t himself anymore. He was like this and he didn’t recognize me; he didn’t recognize my mother. The doctor said, “Well, he had a severe stroke and, um, uh, majority of his brain was damaged, especially frontal lobe was damaged so he gets aggressive. His mental age, it could be as young, as little as two years old. And there’s no hope for the recovery.”
And I was in shock. I hadn’t introduced my, uh, baby girl (it’s his first grandchild) before his stroke so I, I, I brought the photo album of my baby girl and I show it to him. “Th, th… hey, Dad, this is your first grandchild.” And my father took it, threw it on the floor and look at somewhere else. And drooling and my mother was wiping him. And I had to flew back to Florida (because I had a full-time job) a week later. I told my doctor, “Uh, I think, well, for the past one week, I think a little by little, maybe my father is getting better.”
And the doctor said, “Huh, huh, no way! Can you hear him? He’s, uh, screaming? We have to tie him into the wheelchair and other patients cannot, uh, sleep. We have to put him in a psychia… psychiatric, uh, hospital for the rest of his life.”
My father loved to go outside, socialize, very intelligent, and smart; he has to stay in a psychiatric hospital for the rest of his life! I was sad and I cried but I had to go back to Florida.
And two months later, I had a dream of my father who, uh, got back to himself. I know that my mother here… for… had, uh, very bad knees, um, climbed down three flights to get outside from her apartment. Took, uh, two buses and climb up to the hills every single day for two months to teach my father how to read, how to write, how to make him remember who he was. I called my mother. “I, I just had this dream; how’s, uh, uh, my dad doing?”
And she said, “I was just gonna call you. He came to, back to himself. Now he recognizes me, and the doctor and the nurses. He can communicate, uh, and he’s going to be released from the hospital, uh, next week. Yes, his, uh, feeding tube was, tube was removed!”
So, I was so happy and, um, now we (he) can ride a bicycle, he go to library by himself, mm, to read his favorite history book. And, you know what? Um, several years later, my mom fell down at the, you know, uh, parking lot, at the grocery shopping. And nobody else was there, and she couldn’t, she couldn’t get up. And then, “Oh, no! somebody HELP!”
And guess who showed up like a Superman? That was my father! He was walking around and found my mother on the ground. So, he called the taxi and he took my mom to the hospital. So, actually, um, her hipbone was broken and, also, it was time, uh, to do her knee surgery. So, my mother was staying at the hospital for four months. And every single day, my father went to the hospital to take care of her.
So, my father right now is 87 years old; my mother is 83 years old. They still live together at their apartment. So, I guess, they’re not passionate towards each other like American couples but, I guess, some kind of love has been growing between them over fifty-three years.
Karin had been a practical Asian woman and everything, such as “going to America by age 24”, “being a professional actor by 31”, “finding a partner from match.com by age 37”, “getting pregnant by age 40”, had been happening exactly as she planned. A sudden stillbirth of her baby boy changed her view, and she overcame the grief through the help of storytelling at a support group, workplace, and in her Japanese blog.
If an unfortunate life event happened to you, how would you react to it? What is the best way to cope with emotions such as grief or anger?
What do you think would be the best way to express sympathy to the person who just lost her unborn baby?
How does storytelling help to heal people?
Empty Arms: Coping with Miscarriage, Stillbirth and Infant Death by Sherokee Ilse
Healing After Loss: Daily Meditations for Working Through Grief by Martha W. Hickman
Something Happened: A Book for Children and Parents Who Have Experienced Pregnancy Loss by Cathy Blanford
Education and Life Lessons
Family and Childhood
Hi, my name is Karin Amano. Well, I had been a very practical Asian woman who plans out every aspect of her life, such as going to America by age of 24, and being a professional actor by age 31, finding a partner from Match.com from age 37. And getting married and pregnant with a baby girl by the age of 40, and keep my full-time job, saving money and purchasing a house by age of 43.
So, in order to find my Mr. Right, uh, I had to write down 12 criteria that I was looking for my future partner. And after being on Match.com for three years, I finally found my partner who met all my requirements in my list. He was a college professor so we exchanged, uh, term paper-like emails for two weeks and two-hour telephone interview. And, finally, we decided to meet at the fancy Japanese restaurant. And we immediately fell in love with each other and we decided to marry. Yes.
Well, actually, eh, it took, you know… we, uh, dated for a year and then move in together the next year. And the test period has done, so 40 years old, we had a wedding. Ah, we did, uh, the Japanese traditional style wedding wearing kimonos and also a Jewish style wedding under chuppah, uh, wedding canopy.
And now, so we get married at age 40, and so I plan that, okay, we’re gonna have a baby, okay. In 10 months, I’ll give, uh, birth to a baby girl and then two months later, I will go back to work. Yes. And there right after our, uh, traditional Jewish wedding, I got pregnant, yes. And, yes, 20 week, weekth of pregnancy, I found that, uh, the baby was not a girl, so I was disappointed because it was not my plan. But anyway w… my husband and I decided to name the baby Kentaro, uh, which means the first healthy boy, in Japanese. And, uh, 28 week of my pregnancy, I was ready to go to, uh, take my very first maternity swimming class but I noticed that I hadn’t felt any baby kick. So, well, I al… you know, I’s… I called the doctor’s office and the nurse told me to come to the office immediately, so I did. And my doctor, who was moving the ultrasound probe, she said, “I, I cannot find a heartbeat!”
And I couldn’t figure out what she meant and she said, “I’m so sorry.” She continued, “Um, six days ago, your baby’s heartbeat was perfect. I don’t know what happened, uh, since then. I’m so sorry. Your baby didn’t make it but you have to deliver the baby tonight.”
So, I was put in a wheelchair although I was super healthy, um, carried into a beautiful hospital room with a great view of green trees and, uh, hills. And I was gonna have very happy delivery in less than a couple months. And a few hours later, my husband arrived. He looked very sad. And then, uh, the nurse started inducing me, and soon I started having a fever and shivering. I felt very, very cold and, uh, also pain whole my body and hallucinations for nine hours. And, finally, at 3:13 a.m., my baby boy Kentaro came into the world. He looked very beautiful. Of course, he was smaller than the full-term baby but cute face, fuzzy hair, long legs and arms, tiny fingers and tiny toes. He just looked like, as if he was just sleeping. And our nurse, who also had experience of stillbirth, was very sweet to us. And, uh, she dressed Kentaro in a cotton onesie and a hat. She took our, uh, family photo and got his footprint, wrote his name, birth weight and birthday on the card. And (s)he let us spend, uh, family time for several hours until she came to pick him up. And, um, that was the last chance say goodbye to Kentaro forever.
And then the next day, we came, uh, back to our home and when we saw the baby shower gifts on the table, we cried. When I looked at myself in the mirror with a flat belly, I cried. My husband and I sat together on the couch and just kept crying. And later that night, I got, uh, lots of phone calls from my friends and co-workers. And, um, I thanked them for their phone calls but I was troubled by what they said. And I played out in my mind what I really wanted to respond. It’s like this:
“Karin, you always wanted a baby girl, right, so you think about it, it’s just a rehearsal. Next one’s gonna be okay.”
“Well, you mean that the… Kentaro was just a rehearsal? Nobody can be, uh… replace Kentaro.
“Yeah, Karin, everything happens for a reason.”
“Then please give me the reason.”
“Are you coming back to work in a, a few days?”
“Well, it takes the same amount of time as the regular, uh, recovery time for the regular delivery.”
“You know, my friends and I were talking about you. I, we think that, yo… your eggs are too old. You know, you’re 40 years old, you know.”
“When did you become a medical researcher?”
“You know, uh, what are you going to do if the baby was worn… born with a big health problem. It’s gonna be so hard for you to raise him like that so it was a good thing that it happened, uh, now before he was born.”
“So, you mean that it was a good thing that he died now.”
“You know, I know that, you know, they meant well and tried to cheer me up. And I could have been one of them, you know, try to cheer up and saying the way wrong word. Uh, who could imagine, uh, you know, have to deliver the baby with very short notice knowing that the baby is coming into world without crying, without opening his eyes, uh, you know. And all the future, which was made around the baby, disappears. You know, holidays, next year, in five years, in ten years, the future suddenly disappears. So, I try to keep myself busy – next month and two months. And I remember my Japanese mother. When I called her, you know, I needed some nice words from her. She was very negative.
And she said, “Oh, I cannot believe you named the baby before he was born. You shouldn’t have done that. Ah, I, I think you worked too hard. I cannot believe you spent some time with a dead baby.”
And I said to her, calmly, “Mom, uh, could you please, um, uh, try not to say you shouldn’t have done that, something like that. You know, I was so glad that I named him. I can always talk to him in the heaven and he will like that.”
And there was a silence and then my mother said, “I, I told you this before, long time ago, I lost my baby boy right before the due date and I, I didn’t get to see him. Your dad and your grandma saw him but they was… they’re worried that if I could be devastated and in shock. But I was always wondering how he would look. Maybe I should have seen him.” Well, since then, she stopped giving me, uh, negative comments.
And, meanwhile, I started attending… my husband and I started attending a support group and the facilitator also lost a baby 30 years ago. And each of us, very diverse group, uh, Asian Jewish, Hispanic couples, British couples, American couples (there are five of us) started telling the story of our loss. And, uh, we really were helped telling our story, feeling each other. And, also, I wrote my blog and so many people gave me the comment that they are really helped to go through the grief process.
Five years ago, when Karin moved to a small town in the Midwest after previously living in Tokyo, New York City and Orlando, Florida she worried at first about fitting in but was glad to find that people seemed overall friendly and open-minded. Very recently, however, she had a troubling encounter with racism and told her story to her friends (one Caucasian and two African American sisters) in town as well as her Jewish husband and got very different responses. (more…)
People from all over the world came to America in the 1850s in search of riches during the California Gold Rush. Many young Chinese men immigrated to America to earn money to support their families in China. They experienced discrimination and violence, and could only live in specially designated areas, which became locally known as Chinatown. Chinese food was considered to be “exotic” by the Lo Fan or White people. This story follows one of the legends surrounding the origins of a popular Chinese American dish. No one knows when or where the dish was invented and that makes for a good myth. (more…)
Charles Ishikawa grew up in Plantation camps in Waipahu, Hawaii in the 1930s and 1940s. He was 14 years old and on his way to his high school basketball practice when Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. He saw the planes diving like sea birds over the ships in the harbor. After Marshall Law was declared, he helped patrol the Plantation camps to make sure that no lights shown out at night. He was issued a gas mask at school and helped dig an air raid shelter in his backyard. He and his family took down and burned everything that was Japanese in their home. They were Americans, but worried if they were American enough. (more…)
High school students organizing a memorial service for a teacher trigger an emotional process for Eunice who is asked to step out of her comfort zone, again. Family life and school life create race-related expectations.
Hi, my name is Eunice Jarrett and my story starts in the 1960s, in Indiana.
The complexion of our high school was changing and the black parents encouraged their kids to stand up and be a credit to our race. So, I became our high school student government’s token Negro. One of our teachers had died suddenly, and the student government people were asked to organize a memorial service.
And I remember the service going kind of like this. We had a meeting and I remember the meeting going something like this. Max was the president and he decided that he would preside over the meeting.
Rose really liked the old teacher. And so, she said that she would give the highlights of the teacher’s life. Chris was a poet and he volunteered to tell the poem. Huh, and Tom, Tom decided that he should say the closing prayer.
And then they decided, “Well, what, what should Eunice do?”
Tom said, “Let her sing. Isn’t that what her people do?”
Like I wasn’t in the room. I mean, I was right there. Why would they say for me to sing? They never heard me sing. Ohh! Sing and dance. That’s what they think my people do. Huh. Well, they didn’t know. They didn’t know that letting me sing might break that stereotype. Letting me sing, I might bring my whole race down from that high pillar of musical expectation. But I’d sing, because that’s what my people do.
You see, my sister Annie, she stepped up and she went to teachers’ college, graduated with honors, only to be told that this color of her skin disqualified her from teaching in her own hometown. Huh. She won that federal court case and the superintendent of schools who said, “Over my dead body,” he died. And my sister became the first Negro teacher in our whole school city. She inspired other people, and that’s what my people do.
Fred didn’t know, Fred didn’t know that I knew some real singers. I mean, my mother and my sisters, they could really sing. My mother, she fancied herself to be a soprano Marian Anderson. Hmm. When she got to sing on Sundays, she had her own gospel arias. But she would always tell us the story of that magnificent Negro woman who sang opera all across the United States and all around the world. Then she told the story of the Daughters of the American Revolution who wouldn’t let her sing at their event in Constitution Hall, in front of an integrated audience. Because Marian Anderson was a Negro. Hmm.
Mama said, “What the devil means for bad, God will use it for good.” Mama said, “Mrs. Roosevelt fixed it. Instead of Constitution Hall, Marian Anderson got to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on a beautiful Easter morning, in front of thousands and thousands of people. I can still feel the pride of Mama’s voice when she told that story.
Yes. Daughters of the American Revolution. Yes, that organization. They were the same daughters, they gave out awards to eighth graders for citizenship and leadership. And when I graduated eighth grade in 1966, I was the winner of that award.
Our principal and faculty, they voted for me. But when they found out who I was, they turned my name into the DAR. And when they found out who I was, they refused to give me the award because it was supposed to be given to a white student.
Well, our white principal said, “We voted for her. And if you don’t give it to her, we won’t give your award ever again!”
I still have that award somewhere in a box. Can you imagine how I felt standing there to receive an award that I knew they didn’t want to give me? But I stood there and I was gracious, because that’s what my people do.
Well, while Rose was writing my name, I wondered, “Should I get Mama or my sisters to sing?”
Well, the student government kids didn’t know that when I went to choir rehearsal, my sisters got the best singing parts, they got the leads. And the rest of us, we had to clap and rock in the background. The student government kids didn’t know I had a hard time clappin’ and rockin’ at the same time.
But I think I’ll sing, even though once a lady at choir rehearsal whispered very loudly that I couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. So just to make her a liar, I practiced finding my tone, and I put it in my imaginary bucket.
Well, you know, I agreed to sing not because I’m the best singer, but we stand up. And sometimes we have to stand up to people who don’t know it was enough to not like us.
You know, they say that when one black family moves into a block, it breaks the block. Well, when my family moved, we broke the block. And the boy next door made it his job to stand at our fence and call us names, every day. And we had to walk past him, hold our head up high, and ignore him every day, until the day he came into the fence, ready to fight girls in their own backyard. Well, my middle sister got in trouble for fighting back. But you know, sometimes we just get tired, sometimes we really do. Huh.
Well, all I had to do was sing a song. I just had to pick a song. “Let My People Go?” Uh, that was a little sarcastic. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot?” That was probably the only spiritual that some of my classmates knew. But I was a Negro and we had spirituals. That’s what my people do.
Well, it was the day of the program. I remember the shuffling feet, letting down the wooden auditorium chairs, the hushed whispers. The student government officers, we entered stage left and there were chairs, wooden chairs and an arc behind the podium. Yes, hhh, I remember.
Max went to the podium, and he, in his most eloquent words, explained the reason for the assembly and we started the assembly. He introduced Rose, and Rose had done her… She’d done her research. I didn’t know that I… that teacher had gone to Tibet and knew how to ski. But I was not surprised that she taught a lot of the parents, and she had a cat.
Well, next Chris went up to read his poem. I don’t know what he said because I knew I was next. Then Max went back to the podium, and he said words and more words and I was looking for my invisible bucket. But then Max turned and smiled at me.
So, I stood up. And I walked to the podium. And I looked out on the darkness, and I did what my people do.
In The White Boys, Elizabeth tells of her struggle to be comfortable with her own identity outside the boundaries of the racial norm. She tells of the normal awkward struggles of adolescent love with the addition of struggling to find acceptance of her own racial features. (more…)
In this story, Rives Collins, Assistant Professor at Northwestern University, recalls his work directing plays for children. He shares the discoveries the young people helped him make regarding the importance of representation on our stages and the significance of role models for our children.
Rives says he has two important teachers in the story. Who were those teachers and what did they help Rives discover?
What do you think Rives means by a ‘ME TOO’ moment? Why do you think they are important? What can happen if someone never experiences a ‘ME TOO’ moment?
Tell us about a time you experienced a ‘ME TOO’ moment. Has there ever been a time when you wished for such a moment even when there didn’t seem to be one?
Rives says he remembers the two important teachers to this day, but neither of them was a teacher in the traditional sense of the word. Tell us about a time you learned something significant from someone who wasn’t exactly a teacher? (a friend, a grandparent, a coach, etc.)
Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman Multicultural Scenes for Young Actors by Craig Slaight and Jack Sharrar
Education and Life Lessons
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Hi, my name’s Rives Collins. I teach at Northwestern University in the Department of Theater, where my specialization is theater for young audiences. So, this story, it’s going to take us back a ways. Back to the early 90s or so.
I directed a play for kids. “Androcles and the Lion,” is a crowd pleaser, the comedy. Androcles is known for plucking the thorn out of the paw of a lion and the lion later on returns that kindness. It’s a good story. It’s a story about friendship. And we were working with an organization called Urban Gateways. Urban Gateways would bus kids from underserved neighborhoods to our campus to see a play. And this student matinee was going really well. Kids were having a ball. They were laughing and cheering. And I remember, I noticed that all the kids in the audience, they were people of color and all the actors they were white. I noticed it. I didn’t think much of it. And then, ah, I had this thought. I thought maybe we’re sending the message to the children in the audience that someday they can grow up and come to Northwestern and be a student and be in a play and bring laughter to a whole new generation of kids. And I remember, feeling (and this is awkward to share this), I remember feeling, kind of self-satisfied. Like we were doing some kind of good deed. After the play, all the actors headed out into the lobby, still in costume, to greet the kids on their way to the buses. And when I got to the lobby I saw a huge crowd of kids had gathered around one actor. And I’m thinking to myself, “OK, so, which one of my actors has the charisma to gather a crowd like that? I think it’s probably Androcles. He’s the hero of the story. Nope he’s over there. So maybe it’s the lion. The lion’s the funny guy. He’s over there.”
So I’m wondering which one of my actors has the star power to collect a crowd like that. And as I walk across the lobby, I see. It’s our custodian. And he’s standing with his vacuum cleaner. And I want to be sure you don’t misunderstand. There’s nothing wrong with being a custodian. I believe there’s dignity in all work and not only was our custodian great at what he did, he took real pride in the fact that he’d helped his daughter through law school.
But as I saw him with all the friendly handshakes and high fives, I realized he was the only person of color that kids had seen since arriving at the university. And I understood that maybe I wasn’t sending the message that someday they could grow up and be a student at Northwestern. Maybe I was sending the message that someday they could grow up and they could come to Northwestern University and they could vacuum the floors. I never intended to send that message. Never, ever. But sometimes the things we intend and the things we actually do, they’re not the same.
Ok, so, fast forward with me a few years. I directed another play, “Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse.’ It’s based on kids books by Kevin Henkes and Lilly is a mouse. She likes to wear red, cowboy boots, to carry her purple plastic purse, she’s got a big imagination and she gets in trouble at school a lot. And the actress playing Lilly was a wonderful student, a college student named Niha. And after the performance, we had a question and answer period with the audience. And a little girl raised her hand and said, “I would like to ask the person pretending to be Lilly where she is from.”
And Niha told the truth, “I’m from New Jersey.” And she saw the palpable disappointment in the eyes of the child. So she added, “But my family came to America from India.”
And that’s when the little girl jumped up on her chair and she cried out, “Me too! Me too!” And the whole audience applauded and cheered.
And from this stage, Niha was beaming. And I learned something that stayed with me. I’ve worked to create those, “Me too,” moments ever since. I believe those moments of identification, they matter. It’s not enough to invite young people to our spaces as if they are tourists. As if they’re outsiders seeing a place where they don’t really fit in. I think instead, we want to create those empowering “Me too” moments that allow young people to imagine themselves being successful in this place. And helping them understand, in their bones, that they belong.
I’m grateful to two important teachers. One, a much loved custodian, and the other a little girl who once jumped up on her chair and cried out, “Me too!”
A story about Elizabeth, an “Army brat”, who must navigate the world for her Korean immigrant mother. Through this process she learns to stop being embarrassed by her mother and shifts to fighting for her.
How many of you are recent immigrants or have immigrant parents?
What are the daily struggles you have or that you see your parents and other family members going through?
If you have immigrant parents, are there times you are embarrassed by them? Can you share examples and reflect on from where the embarrassment comes?
What steps can you take to make you and/or your parents’ transition in America easier?
What do people who have been here longer need to understand and how can they be a support to new immigrants?
Learning a New Land by Carola Suarez-Orozco Korean Immigrants and the Challenge of Adjustment by Moon H. Jo
Education and Life Lessons
Family and Childhood
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Hi, I’m Elizabeth Gomez. It was 1983 in Virginia. I was laying in my room in the dark with the covers over my head listening. She was yelling and I was only nine years old so I wasn’t really sure what to do. My mother and I had been here before, just listening to her struggling and screaming. I pull the covers tighter over my head when I heard, “Risa, Risa, you come here. You come here now!”
As I walked out of my sanctuary, my eyes widen and I slumped into the kitchen. She stood there in a polyester robe with a brown phone dangling from her hand.
“Risa, you speakie to him. He no understanding me.”
I stood there flushed with embarrassment, and took the phone from my mother’s hand, “Hello.”
“Could you just help us get your mom’s account number. We’d really like to help her.”
“Mom. What’s your account number?”
“Oh, you terr him, you terr him, jero-jero-sex-sex-four-eight-sex.”
“It’s 0-0-4-8-6.” (0-0-6-6-4-8-6)
“As I talked to this man, my mom walked around in the kitchen. She was pacing back and forth, getting angrier and angrier. She didn’t understand why Americans didn’t understand her when she spoke to them, especially because she’d been in this country for over a decade. I watched her pace through the kitchen, back and forth, her small Asian frame just blowing in and out, and in and out until she was rounded out like one of those monsters from Where the Wild Things Are.
After I completed the phone call, I hung up. I looked at my mom. This lady demon who was slowly morphing back into this four-foot-something Asian lady.
“Why they don’t understanding? Why don’t understanding me? I speakie good Engrish.”
I watched my mom sit at the kitchen table and I put my hand over hers. I looked at her as her face was beginning to worry and her body started to fill with self-doubt. At that moment, I decided I have… I had to stop. I had to stop running away and hiding and I had to really commit to being her English (Engrish) to Engrish (English) translator for the rest of my life. And it was always like that.
My father was a Puerto Rican-American, U.S. citizen, who served in the military. He met my mother in Seoul, Korea. They married; they had kids. Most of my mom’s life, as a military wife, was traveling abroad and she spent very little time in America. While she was here, she did okay. But when my dad was gone on duty or training missions, my mom had to make her way through and I was rela… relegated to just, basically, being her translator.
I spent tons of time just, like, watching her try to talk to sales people and clerks and merchants, just trying to get what she needed. It was like watching a Charlie Brown episode where the teacher’s talking to Charlie Brown and all Charlie Brown can hear is this muffled sound of nothingness. And I would just stand and watch my mom wave her hands around, and gesticulate, and try to convey what she needed, without being able to tell them in the way that they needed to hear it.
And every time, I’d be broken up with this sound, “Risa, Risa, you terring him, you terring him right now, Risa. You terring him, ‘Me want to buy fridgey.’”
“She wants to buy a fridge.”
“You terring him we need to move to Browning Street.”
“She wants you to know that we live on Brown Street.”
“You terring him, ‘It’s too expenses’.”
“She means it’s too expensive.”
If that wasn’t bad enough, she named me Elizabeth. She doesn’t even know how to pronounce Elizabeth, so she started calling me Lisa, which she also does not know how to pronounce. In addition to that, my mom would have to go to conferences, like, parent-teacher conferences, and those were the most embarrassing, humiliating, and petrifying moments of my life. There they were, these well-articulated, ecedga… educated teachers looking at my mom with these plastered smiles, just nodding their heads, trying to understand what she was saying.
And my mom is basically screaming at them, trying to convey, “Oh, Risa, she so razy.”
In addition, I couldn’t have any friends. Anyone who came into my house, got pinched by my mother when she would say things like, “Oh, you so fat!” Or, “Oh, why your eyes so big?”
Every single friend I ever made, who came to my house, basically, never came back and I accepted that. That was my life. I was gonna be the town recluse and I always was gonna have this rude mother.
Late one night, I could hear my mom talking to someone on the phone and it was my dad’s new girlfriend. I dropped my blanket and I walked to the wall that separated my room from my mother’s. And I could hear her just softly begging this woman to let my father go. And I heard her say, “Prease, prease go way. We have kids.”
I listened for a long time, and my heart started pounding as I felt for her. And I just listened, as she kept begging and begging. And I didn’t even really like my father and, up ’til that point, I’m not sure I liked my mother that much either. But at this moment, I felt what was going on with her, and I understood that this was painful. And I pressed my head closer against the wall as I listened to her hang up the phone and sob and cry. And I wanted to go to her but I couldn’t. I could just listen. And I did. I listened until I fell asleep to the sounds of what pain was for her.
A few, a few weeks later, after months of not seeing my father, I was really surprised when he came to pick up me and my brother to go to New York and see my grandmother. Not only was I surprised to see him, I was surprised that I was allowed to leave with him.
“I don’t wanna go.”
“Risa, you take good care of Ab-e. You be good girl, okay?”
“No! I don’t want to go.”
As we drove up to New York, my father stopped at a rest stop. He went to go use the phone booth. And as he was in the phone booth, I could tell that he was just being himself – super charming, and laughing, and flirtatious to someone on the phone. Eventually, he started walking toward our car, and I felt a little weird. And I wasn’t sure what was going on. So, he said for us to come over and, uh, talk to this person on the phone. And I pick up the phone and, huh, I hear this voice come over.
“And she says, “Hello, Elizabeth. It’s me, Jane, your dad’s friend. How are you?”
At that moment, all the anguish I had for my mother, the loss of my father, the not understanding of what had been going on with my whole family, this whole entire time came rushing at me. My heart pounded. My ears… like sounds of, like, waves came through my ears. And I felt nothing but anger when I replied, “I know you’re not my father’s friend. You’re his girlfriend! As a matter of fact, you keep calling my house, and I hate you for hurting my mother.”
And I hung up the pho… er, I dropped the phone and I ran back to the car. And I watched as my father, like, fumbled around with this phone and he’s spewing out apologies. And then he comes back to the car, he slams the door shut, and smacks me across my face. And he starts talking, just talking about something or another, and I have no idea what he’s saying because I don’t care. I just didn’t care.
All I knew was that, at that moment, I had been able to tell this woman the things that my mom wanted to say to her. And in some small way, this 9-year-old was able to score a big point for my mother.
After our trip was over, we came home. I could hear my mom and my dad arguing out in the front porch about this or that or what the kids knew or didn’t know. And I was pretty sure as I was standing in the kitchen, that when my mom came back, she was gonna spank me or discipline me for re… disrespecting my father. Instead, she walked in with these bloodshot eyes, mascara tears dried on her cheeks. She looked at me. She made me a bowl of hot ramen noodle soup. She smiled and then she went back into her bedroom.
I still translate for her to this very day, especially with my own family. I mean, huh, we’re still not used to the idea that when you get pinched, and to be told, “You’re fat,” that that actually means, “Hey, are you hungry?”
We’ve learned to communicate in ways of, like, laughter and shared experiences and gestures. And now, when my mom asks my husband and I if we’ve bought a condom, I know she means condo.
Jasmin takes you into the rabbit hole of panic that she faces when she gets engaged to be married. Questions about her identity and her role as a woman surface as she tries to weed through old world Latino expectations while being an educated American woman today. (more…)
Diggsy Twain, an African American man, tells a friend about an encounter he had on a train and what he did to stop the stereotype that all black men are angry. Then after telling his story he realizes anyone can stereotype the “other.” (more…)
As a teen E.B. liked being unique but his coaches wanted him to fit in. Then years later as an attorney he wants to hire someone who reminds him of himself. He decides to hire her and let her find out if she wants to fit in or standout. (more…)
What drew the teller to Stan? What lessons did Dan learn from Stan?
From a Name to a Number: A Holocaust Survivor’s Autobiography by Alter Wiener Displaced Persons: Growing Up American After the Holocaust by Joseph Berger
Education and Life Lessons
Family and Childhood
Hi, my name is Dan Keding and I’m going to tell you the story about Stan, a Holocaust survivor.
In between sixth and seventh grade, my family moved from the south side of Chicago to the north side. And I remember the day we arrived at the new apartment building we were going to be living in – one of those U-shaped apartment buildings with a courtyard. Well, we pulled up behind the moving van and, as I got out of the car, this enormous shadow covered me. And a voice boomed out and said, “Welcome to the neighborhood! I’m Stan.”
And this great, huge hand that could palm a bowling ball came out of that shadow and he pumped my arm. And I was looking at the biggest human I had ever seen in my life. Stan was six foot six at least; 300 lbs. of muscle. He had a big, floppy hat on and a crooked grin and he walked with a slight limp.
And he held court inside our courtyard. There was always a lawn chair there. And pretty soon, that summer, there were two lawn chairs. Stan and I became friends and every day, we would sit there and he would tell me stories.
He was a Polish Jew who had come to America after the war and he told me stories of Poland, the old legends. He told me Jewish folk tales. He told me stories of the war where he’d fought in the Resistance in Poland.
We’d go for walks sometimes. And even the adult bullies would walk off the sidewalk and smile kind of sheepishly as Stan would say, “How ya doin?”
And they’d go, “Okay,” ’cause his shoulders took up most of the sidewalk.
He was a sweet and kind man… gentle. One day, he turned to me and said, “You know, Dan, you’re gonna be a big man when you grow up. You know what’s important, don’cha?”
Well, I had been watching Errol Flynn for years, you know. I knew what was important. “Honor,” I said.
And he looked at me and said, “Honor? (spit) Honor is a luxury. Honor is stupid!” He says, “If a man curses you… a man dishonors you, you walk away. They’re less a man than you! The only things worth fighting for are family and friends.” That was a lesson I needed to hear.
Well, one day we were talking and Stan, he turned to me and said, “It is so hot out today.”
And it was July, and I said, “Oh, you’re right!” We were both soaked in the sun and he took off his floppy hat, which I’d never seen him do before. He took a big, huge bandanna and started to wipe his head, which was totally devoid of any hair and was covered in surgical scars.
As he put his hat back on, I turned to him and said, “What happened to you?”
He said, “During the war, we ambushed a Nazi patrol and there were more of them than we thought. I was wounded. That’s why I limp. And before I could take my own life, as we often did in the Resistance, I was captured. Because I’m a Jew, they sent me to a concentration camp, Dan. Because I’m so big and so strong, they experimented on me.”
The doctors at the camp had opened his skull dozens of times to see how the human brain worked. But, you know, they couldn’t find the gentleness and the beauty of his.
One day, he turned me and said, “Dan, let’s go for a…” And he slumped in his chair. I panicked and I ran up the steps of the apartment building, knocked on the door where his, his wife and he lived.
And I said, huh, huh, I said, “Huh, huh, is… it’s Stan! He’s had a heart attack. He’s had a stroke!”
She said, “Shh… stop.” So, I did. She said, “It’s what they did to him, Daniel. You haven’t seen it before. Once, twice, even three times a day, Stan passes out. Just go downstairs, sit down next to him. And when he wakes up, he’ll start a sentence from where he left off.”
This is kind of spooky for a boy going into seventh grade, but I did as I was told. And I went downstairs and sat in that lawn chair. And after about five minutes, those huge shoulders squared up and the head came up and he said, “walk around the neighborhood and see what’s happening.”
I said, “Sure, Stan, let’s go.”
One day, my stepdad was changing a tire. He couldn’t get the last lug nut off. Uh, and Stan walked over and said, “Hey, Herm. What’s, what’s the problem?”
And my stepfather said, “I can’t get the lug nut off this last one. They must have put in on too tight with those pneumatic tools they use now.”
Stan says, “I can get it off.”
And my stepdad handed him the tire iron. And Stan looked at the tire iron as if it was some kind of strange, foreign instrument. And he put it down on the grass, reached over with two fingers, grabbed the lug nut and went (clk) and took it off and handed it to my stepfather. He told that story for the rest of his life.
When school started, I went to the Catholic school. Mom always said, “Dan, you have to go to the Catholic school because I can’t impose you on people who are paid with taxes.” I thought that was cruel of her but it was true.
One day I said to Stan, “Stan, why don’t you come to school, tell your stories?”
And Stan got this look of mock horror on his face. He said, “Oh, no, Dan! I went into that Catholic church one time and I saw what they did to the last Jew they got their hands on.” And then he started laughing at the top of his voice and his laughter rolled out of the courtyard and into the street.
It was late autumn and I was coming home from school when I saw an ambulance pulling away from the apartment building. Jenny, who lived in the basement, she was standing there and I said, “What happened?” And she told me that it was Stan.
We didn’t have garages or workrooms or basements even. When we built things, we built them in the kitchen because that’s where the linoleum was and you could clean it up. Stan was building a bookcase and he slipped and the saw went through his wrist. And before he’d get to the phone, call for help, he had one of his spells and he bled to death on the kitchen floor.
And I stood there at the curb and I wanted to hate someone so badly. But all the men who had hurt my friend were dead.
At the funeral, his wife told me not to forget his stories and I promised her I wouldn’t. And then she grabbed the lapel of my coat. She looked me in the eye and she said, “You know, Dan, the Nazis killed my husband but he was so strong, it took him 20 years to die.”
Please Note : The following video is part of a comedy routine. The video includes some mild sexual content.
When in high school, Archy and his Thai family get into a fight about him dating a black girl. Years later, when Archy came out to his mother, he finds that his mother’s racial attitudes have conveniently changed. (more…)
In this story, Ada Cheng explains the meanings of her Chinese name: Shu-Ju. She explains the connection between her name, her parents’ expectations for her as a daughter, and the cultural expectations for her as a daughter. She details why she chose to stay with the name Ada and what Ada means to her life and her identity.
Hi! I’m Ada Cheng. Ada Cheng. Let me start with my original name. I was born in Taipei, Taiwan and I was born Chen Shu-Ju. In Taiwanese culture and some of the Asian cultures, Cheng, we put our last name in the first place so Cheng is the family name. Shu-Ju, um, that’s my given name. In Taiwanese culture, when parents give children their names, uh, it represents, uh, their expectations in terms of what they want and what they hope for their future. It can be about their life; it can be about their career. Shu-Ju. Shu, the character means like a lady. Ju means good luck.
So, I can just imagine my mother going to a fortuneteller and trying to find the right characters for me. Um, and, eh, she would probably talk to my father. “I think it would be great if we give our daughter, uh, this wonderful name and we hope that she will be gentle and… and… and quiet and polite and respectful. Like a lady with a lot of good luck.
So, now imagine my being a little girl, like a tomboy. And then my parents’ expectation was that they wanted me to be respectful, polite, quiet and… and gentle like a lady and I didn’t like my name when I was growing up. Um, here’s the thing, this is what my mother’s… as I was growing up, this is what my mother would say, “Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah! You got to wash dishes. You… you’re a girl; you have to help out in the kitchen. Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah! Close your legs! You’re a girl! Come on, you can’t do that anymore. Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah! You can’t beat up your brother. He’s a boy. You’re a girl! Ah, Shu-Ju, what’s going on with you? You can’t run around naked anymore. You’re a girl! Ah, you can’t play with boys. Please do not talk back!”
Let sink that, think, sink that, sinking for a while. I grew up like playing, running around, tomboy, climbing, liked to climb trees, climb things, fight with boys. And as I was growing up, I hated my name because how did you… could you convince me to love a name that I knew I was going to fail my parents’ expectations. That there was no way for me to fake it, right! Often time you fake it until you make it! There’s no way. For me to know I can fake it until I make it. And… and there’s no way for me to… when I was a little girl, I thought there… there’s no way for me to make it as a woman in this society.
And I rebelled; I refused to do anything required me as a girl. Um… which also very interesting is that I… my mother also gave me another nickname. Um, in Mandarin, it’s called Zhi Da Bien. In Taiwanese, it’s called Gay Sei. In… in English, it’s called Chicken Poop! That’s right! My mother called me Chicken Poop. Eh… and it was… so, um, I asked my mother, “Why would you call me such name?”
And she say, “Because you were so small; just like a chicken poop, right?” She thought it was very, very endearing to call me this. Um… ah, she didn’t think there was anything wrong with it. But the thing when… as I am older and think back, would she call my brother such a name?
So, I remember when I was 8 years old and I was playing with, uh, neighborhood children. And I was the smallest one in the neighborhood but I was the one, the strongest one with the strongest opinions. I liked to order people around and I would say, “Line up! Do this and do that!” So, often time, after school the children would just stand there and play. So I remember that day, that close to dinnertime, and I was gathering people and say, “Hey, hey, hey! Please, uh, gather up, we’re gonna play the game (whatever the game was). We’re gonna play again!”
And as I was ordering people around and, uh, I was the smallest one, my mother suddenly appear at the door and then she said, “Zhi Da Bien, Zhi Da Bien! Shi wăncān!” So, the English translation is “Chicken Poop, Chicken Poop, it’s time for dinner!”
And I just froze! And I turn around and I look at my mother and I was exasperated. I was being authority figure, standing in front of a group calling the shot and then, I say, “Five minutes, give me five minutes!” Ah! In my back, I heard children giggling, right! And when I turn around, the kids just started to laugh at me. “Ah, Zhi Da Bien, Zhi Da Bien, right! Your name is Chicken Poop, Chicken Poop! And then I was… I just… I was so mad! I was so frustrated! And I… I just left. I ran away. I said, “You know, I’m not going to play with you guys!” and left.
And when I went home, I finished dinner and I didn’t talk to my mother. And that was pretty much the day I kind of lost my status in the neighborhood. I mean, think about it, how many boys will want to play with a girl and to be ordered around by a girl whose name is Chicken Poop, right! Um, and I realize nobody wanted to play with me. Um, when my mother saw me this small or given me this small… um, and later on, uh, you know, my mother and I, ah, my family and I – we stopped talking with each other.
And, um, because I was trying to be my own person, um, wanted to search my own life, um… And it was actually October, 1976, I was in junior high school. We… everyone started to learn English and so one day when I’m home, we have this very small dictionary. And I thought if I started to learn English, I am going to have an English name so I can immerse myself in with… into the environment so I flipped through the dictionary. I found this name list and I looked through the names. In our textbooks, we have Mary, we have Susan, we have… have all these names. I thought I got to find a name that nobody has heard. So, I looked through it and I saw the name… I saw Ada, right! Ada is for the first place, the first name listed under the alphabet A. And I looked at it and I thought, “That’s it, Ada! That’s the name for me!”
Because at the age 12, the only thing I want to be was number one. So, I thought I wanted to pick the name Ada so I could be number one then and number one forever. So, I pick that name and I stick with it, uh, forever. And I started to introduce myself to everyone as Ada and that’s the important part is that when I picked that name, I also wrote a different story for myself. Thank you.
This story speaks to the cruelty of the imposed mental conditioning that inspires people to come to despise their own natural attributes. Mama Edie refers to her father who was considered “too dark” to marry her mother by Mama Edie’s great aunt. Mama Edie also reflects on her Mexican American cousin, who thought she looked “too light” or “too Mexican” to feel like a truly loved member of the family. The story explores how this toxic conditioning has often led to people seeing themselves as being “less than,” not as “beautiful” or well-loved. It further explores the impact this can have on family and other relationships, such that Mama Edie’s cousin felt that she didn’t quite belong anywhere. It ends with a song segment sung in Spanish by Mama Edie that celebrates the beauty and strength of so-called “people of color.” (more…)
During WWII, men fought on the eastern and western front, but Rosie was the soldier on the home front. Working all shifts and all jobs she plowed her way through a workplace woven with sexism and racism and despite it all, this gal had production levels that turned heads. In this excerpt, you’ll meet an African American Rosie who changed the nature of a 1944 workplace.
During WWII, 5 million women poured into the American workforce, and worked an average of 56 hours a week. These same women remained the primary homemakers, and caretakers for their children. What, if anything, has change for working women today and why?
During WWII, the nation and its industries desperately needed women to step up and take the jobs that men were leaving when they volunteered or were drafted for the armed forces. Can you name three of those industries? What difficulties did women, immigrants, and people of color have entering these industries? Did women remain at their work after the war? Why or why not?
WWII was the first time in our national history that women, immigrants, and people of color were hired to do difficult, technical jobs that paid them well. Though many of these people had to sign a promise to give their jobs back to the white males when they returned from the war. How do you think that doing these jobs and experiencing a sense of equality changed the new workers?
The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter by Marilyn Whitman
V Is For Victory: The American Home front During WWII by Miriam Frank
Uncle Sam Wants You: Men and Women of WWII by Sylvia Whitman
Stereotypes & Discrimination
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
Hi, I’m Judith Black.
Now during World War II, when men were serving on both the eastern and western front, who do you think made the boats, the guns, the airplanes that they fought with? The women on the home front. Was often called the Third Front. And this is a story about those women. There are actually three adventurers in it and each Rosie deals with a different issue. The first Rosie with sexism, the second with Holocaust denial. But I want you to meet the third Rosie.
All the day long whether rain or shine She’s a part of the assembly line She’s making history, working for victory Rosie the Riveter Keeps a sharp lookout for sabotage Sitting up there on the fuselage That little frail can do more than a male will do Rosie the Riveter
Rosie rocked underneath the great wrought iron gate. It was the graveyard shift, 11 at night till 7 in the morning. But Rosie, she kept the pace and the spirits high. As a matter of fact, the only thing that didn’t keep the spirits high was that night’s set-up man.
“Hey, Susie, girl,” Rosie asked Susie the same question every night and got the same answer. “Hey, Susie girl, how’s college education helping you on the line?”
“Oh, Rosie. It’s teaching me how to check my paystub for the right amount.”
“Girlfriend, I’m going to have to have you look at mine. Hey, Ho Trung, how’s it going?”
Ho Trung, a slight talking east man was very shy and Rosie was careful to greet him every single night.
“Okay, ya’ll, let’s get to work.”
That night set-up man. During the war, it was the very first time that people of color, women could actually get well-paying technical jobs in the factories. And the bosses trusted them, they trusted them to do rifling, they trusted them to do file and polish, they trusted them to do chambering but leadership roles still only went to men. White men. And sometimes the guys that got those jobs, just didn’t deserve them. That night set-up man was a long, lean boy with oily hair, pendulous lips and a nervous habit, and whenever he could get it, a cigarette hanging from those lips.
“Okay, you black and white and yellow and brown, let’s get my little United Nations to work.” That always came after a number of racial invectives.
And Rosie would whisper, “Come on, ya’ll. Let’s remember who the real enemy is and show aw stuff.”
But that night set-up man, he was still like a cold wind at people’s necks.
Well, during break time, Rosie kept the pace and the spirits up, “Come on, ya’ll. Come on. We’re going to hear the news as it has been seen and now will be reported, Ho Trung Nguyen.” She knew that Ho Trung, being alone in this country, went to see the newsreels each day. “How Trung, my man. What do we need to know?”
“Rosie, they say since girls come to work in factories, too much kissing and hugging.”
“Coo wee! They’re making blue reels about the workers. What else?”
“They say at McDonnell Douglas Aircraft, they closed back room because girl found kissing with foreman.”
“Coo wee! Don’t mix me up with our set-up man. We’d make some hot stuff.”
“Don’t make too hot, Rosie. Make casing on fighter bomber explode.” It wasn’t a big joke for Ho Trung; it was to the world. Everyone laughed and they were back at their stations before the bell went off. But that didn’t stop the night set-up man.
“Come on, black and white and yellow and brown, let’s get my little United Nations to work. Hey, Emmanuel, maybe if you wash your hands more often, things wouldn’t slip through. Hey, Susie girl. Why don’t you stay after shift? I’ll teach you something they don’t teach you in college. Hey, Rosie,” he knew better than to say anything to Rose. “Trung. Ho Trung, you with the slanty eyes. You, you! You see, you look like a Jap to me. You probably sellin’ secrets.”
“No, not Japanese. Tonkinese.”
“Yeah, you look Jap to me boy, and I bet you’re taking them secrets. I’m gonna tell the boss. Probably fire you.”
“Need job to bring my wife and children here.”
“You’re talking back to me? Are you talking back to me?!” And he took one aggressive step toward Ho Trung. Ho Trung took a step back. He tripped, he fell, and his head missed a moving lathe by that much. And the set-up man just leaned over him. His foot starting to swing like it would when you wanted to kick a stone across the street. Until he felt a warm vibration right at the nape of his neck. And when he started to turn, the vibration intensified ever so slightly. But he knew. It was Rosie and a riveting gun. And he could imagine any hole going from the back.
“Oh, girl! You’re in trouble. You got to…”
“Help that man up, Mr. Mister.”
“Girl, I’m telling you. Girl…”
“Help him up.”
“Good, Now, dust him off.”
“I said, Dust him off, Mr. Mister.”
“Good. Now you apologize to that human being…Now.”
“Sorry, Ho Trung. That was an accident. You know that, don’t ya? Ok. Girl, you and me, we are going down to the foreman’s office right now.”
“Fine. I am right behind you.”
And Rosie, she walked down that long shop floor. That riveting gun never leaving the nape of his neck. They walked up the two steps into the night foreman’s office and door, (closing sound).
Ho Trung looked around and he said, “I don’t know about any of you, but I could speak for Rosie.”
“Wait, Susie will come with you. l’ll talk for Rosie.”
“I, Patrick McPhee, I’ll talk for Rosie.
Emmanuel, “I’ll talk for Rosie.” And soon, all 22 people who worked on that riveting shop floor were lined up behind Ho Trung Nguyen and marching down the aisle there, until they got to the foreman’s door and they heard inside angry voices. But none of them were Rosie’s trying to defend herself.
“I’m telling you! I’m telling you if I’m your voice on that floor, that girl is going to cause anarchy! That girl, she, she thinks she is the boss! She…”
“Now, we’ve never had any trouble with Rose. She has incredible production.”
“I’m telling you unless want anarchy, this girl has got to go! And…”
For the first time in his life, Ho Trung Nguyen opened a door without knock’n. The foreman looked down and he saw 22 pairs of angry eyes. All riveted to his night set-up man. “Rose, I don’t know what happened out there but I’m going to ask you to do me a big favor. Would you please, please go back to work?”
She stood a little too slowly, dusted herself off in the direction of the set-up man, looked down at everyone in that shop. “Come on, ya’ll. We got a lot of time to make up for.” And Rosie and that graveyard shift, they had the highest production levels at any factory during that war.
Well, people often ask when the war was over, did Rosie keep riveting? Well, most women signed a pledge that they give the guys who came back their jobs. So, lots of women went back home. Too many of them had to go back to the poor paying jobs that they had before the war. Some went on for training. But if you asked any of them, “What were you doing during the war?”
They’ll proudly tell you, “Me? I was a Rosie.”
What if she’s smeared full of oil and grease Doing her bit for the old Lendlease She keeps the gang around They love to hang around Rosie the Riveter
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
How do we break up the biases we have about other people?
Can travel be a way to open or confirm our ideas about other people?
Where would you like to travel? How would you keep an open mind about the people you meet along the way?
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
The Smooth Traveler: Avoiding Cross-Cultural Mistakes at Home and Abroad by Susan O’Halloran
African American/Black History
Education and Life Lessons
First Nations/Native Americans
Living and Traveling Abroad
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
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?”
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!”
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. (more…)
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. (more…)
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?
What is your family migration story? Does it matter or not?
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?
Can you describe the story of a world you’d like to see and live in?
Idi Amin: Lion of Africa by Manzoor Moghal
Immigrants Settling in the City: Ugandan Asians in Leicester by Valerie Maret
Family and Childhood
Living and Traveling Abroad
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.
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. (more…)
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
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?
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?)
What is the difference between listening to a story and reading a story?
School Violence in Context: Culture, Neighborhood, Family, School and Gender by Rami Benbenishty and Ron Avi Astor
Education and Life Lessons
Stereotypes and Discrimination
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.
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.
As a child, what games did you play with other children?
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?
When challenges in life and even deaths go unspoken how does that still affect the children?
God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes: Reflections of Children and Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors by Menachem Z. Rosensaft and Elie Wiesel
Education and Life Lessons
Family and Childhood
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
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.
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.
When was a time when you remained silent when you should have spoken up about discrimination? What caused you to stay silent?
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?
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?
Silent Racism: How Well-Meaning White People Perpetuate the Racial Divide by Barbara Trepagnier
Film – Dear White People (2014), Directed By Justin Simien
African American/Black History
Stereotypes and Discrimination
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.
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. (more…)
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. (more…)
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. (more…)
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. (more…)
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. (more…)
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. (more…)
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. (more…)
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.
Why are names important? What do they say about our identity and the people who name us?
How did Onawumi Jean’s mother’s concession help her “get along” in the Jim Crow South?
If you were going to choose another name for yourself, what would it be and why?
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
African American/Black History
Education and Life Lessons
Family and Childhood
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
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.
Nancy shares some of her favorite teaching moments when students from different cultures turn the tables and teach her about stories from their cultures. Second grader, Luis, tries to be patient with his teacher, but despairs of ever getting Nancy to pronounce “pantalones” correctly. Nancy learns just how challenging it is to communicate in another language. (more…)
Some of the most poignant and beautiful writings are created by students simply sharing their life circumstances with one another. Powerful and moving, this story told by Antonio Sacre is a true personal experience that shows that anything is possible and that all students should dream big. Listen as Antonio relates his time spent with a class of high school seniors, the connection he made with them, and their remarkable achievements.
Thirty teenagers from twenty countries, one Jewish teacher, and one Cuban-Irish-American storyteller (story artist, Antonio Sacre) set out to publish a book of writing in one of the poorest and most challenging high schools in Los Angeles. Will fear and distrust stop the project before it begins, or will they stand together?
Classroom Reflections & Activities:
Big project: have students create a class anthology of their own. What would their story be?
Introduce a poetry assignment to students that talks about who they are – struggles, talents, dreams, etc. Bio-Poems are great examples of this type of work.
Brainstorm with students several questions they think would be important to know about someone. Then, have students interview each other. Interviewing sessions could be videotaped and class biographies could be created.
Immigrant Story: a Chinese Family in the US
A Short Video Story by Nancy Wang
RaceBridges pays tribute to the many Asian Americans who have helped build and enrich America. Nancy Wang paints a true life picture of her Chinese American immigrant family’s struggles and ingenuity in the Monterey, CA area. This story is a great resource for understanding the contributions of Asian American immigrants to America.
This story follows the journey of Nance Wang’s ancestors who arrived in California on a junk boat in 1850 and the adversities encountered along the way to America. Upon arriving, Nancy’s family started the fishing industry of the Monterey Peninsula, which proved to be lucrative but not without opposition. Both legal and illegal violence ensued against them for generations.
Although America was a land of opportunity, unfair regulations and restrictions caused great difficulties for the hard-working Chinese Americans. This story reveals how a group of immigrants rallied with resilience and ingenuity so that the 7th generation of Chinese Americans thrives today.
The unimaginable challenges faced by Nancy’s family in this true story are thought-provoking and provide insight for us to appreciate our differences as well as make changes in how we think of others. With understanding, we can feel their pain and change our world for the better.
April 4, 1968 may have been the end of one dream with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. However, on that day, another began in a young woman who pushed past despair, journeying from Mississippi to New York City, to discover that the “dream” lived on in her.
Dr. King is associated with bringing together people of various ethnic backgrounds. While the message of equality was a theme of the Civil Rights Movement, a critical part of the movement centered around employment – compensation, fairness, availability, and equity. How are there still struggles around employment issues in the U.S. and the world?
Each person has been given a talent – teaching, preaching, engineering, drawing, you name it! What are the talents you have been given and how have they helped someone else or you in an unexpected way?
Travel can reveal a new perspective about one’s self, others, and places. Where have your travels brought you? How has something you experienced or seen changed your perspective?
The Great Migration refers to the exodus of African Americans from the American South, seeking a variety of opportunities, new beginnings, and work during the 20th century. This departure from “home” enabled families to unite and offered a different future to the next generation. What sacrifice did those who left the South make for the next generation? What opportunities did future generations have? In your family, how did one generation make a sacrifice that benefitted the next generation(s)?
America Street: A Multicultural Anthology of Stories edited by Anne Mazer
Seeds of Change by Jen Cullerton Johnson
Voice of Freedom – Fannie Lou Hamer: Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement by Carole Boston Weatherford
28 Days: Moments in Black History that Changed the World by Charles R. Smith, Jr.
The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
African American/Black History
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
Hi, my name is Diane Macklin. There are moments in history that are like a rock thrown into the lake of time. The ripples reach all the way to the shore even if you cannot see them.
It was May 1968. Barbara Jean stood at a Greyhound bus station staring across the street. The bus wasn’t there yet but her siblings were, her two sisters and her youngest brother. They were holding hands, watching her, hoping that maybe she would walk to them. Maybe she would head back home to the shotgun shack. She wasn’t going to. She looked down at her freshly polished shoes, saw the little bit of dust on them where she could wipe it off. She had her suitcase. She was determined. She was going to go. Nothing could keep her in Mississippi. Barbara Jean pulled out of her purse the clipping from the newspaper. “Hard working young women needed, live-in maid, New York City.” She folded it up again and put it back in her purse. She was going to go. This was May.
A month earlier, April 4th, 1968 a shot rang out in Memphis Tennessee. A hundred miles north of where she lived, and it came shatterin’ all the way down to where she lived. And she knew the dream was gone. Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. The dream that work would come to the South, that work would return to Mississippi. People that knew the life of sharecropping, people that knew how to work the land, would have work again. But without Dr. Martin Luther King, who was trying to help people to get work, she would never find work, and nor would her children, even though she had no children. She had to go. She had to go to New York. There was work in New York. The bus came. She looked down at the ground. She might stay, if she looked at them again. She got on that bus. She got on the far side away from where her siblings were standing there. The bus pulled off, and she could not look at them. But they stood there until the bus was out of sight. She rode that bus all the way to New York City with that $24 ticket that she gave to that bus driver. She got off and was met with people she’d never seen before.
Women with hair, women with no hair. Women with short hair, women with long hair. There were all sorts of people from all sorts of places from the world. It was a lot of movement, a lot of sound. And she made her way all the way to her employer who brought her to the house that she was going to work. Now as a live-in maid, she knew hard work and this was nothing compared to the work that she did on a farm. At four years old, she learned how to pick cotton. And then at 12 years old, she could pick 300 pounds of cotton. And by the time she was 15, she could pick 600 pounds of cotton, take care of her brothers and sisters, help them to pick because she was determined to make sure that their family picked more cotton than anybody else.
She knew hard work, but there was another work that she did that was harder than dusting and mopping floors. At night, she would sit in a backroom quiet, listening to her employers. They’re from the North. And then she would go back to her own bedroom, sit on the bed, and start to train her tongue not to speak like she was from the South. She felt that people would not think that she was intelligent. They would think she was unintelligent if she sounds like she was a Southerner.
But one day she met this man. He was charming, he was a taxi cab driver. And in his charm, he convinced her to give her… give him, her phone number and she did. She didn’t want to lie.
So, she gave him her phone number but she gave him all the wrong numbers in all the wrong places. But they were the right numbers but all the wrong places.
But he spent two months trying every single combination of those numbers until he reached her. And he courted her and she fell in love. And this man worked for General Motors, hmm, General Motors. There weren’t many women that worked for General Motors. So, she asked him, well, should she apply and he didn’t think it was a good idea. It was a man’s place. It was a man’s job. Required someone who was strong, who could work hard.
He didn’t know her very well. Her father was a blacksmith. She would shoe horses with him. She would make fence posts and put up fences. They would go out and glean for metal. She knew metal and she knew hard work. So, she applied. They continued to court.
She got a job on the assembly line in 1974. And a lot of folks came up to her and told her, “You know, this isn’t your kind of work, so you can stay on the assembly line but that’s about it.”
But she took classes and she did well. She excelled more than any other student. Some folks thought that they didn’t like this so much. Some folks thought that they needed to turn her locker upside down to discourage her. Some folks thought they needed to put glue in her lock to discourage her. Some folks thought they needed to meld all of her tools together to discourage her.
But she knew something! A skilled trade was one of the highest paid positions at General Motors, at that plant in New… Tarrytown, New York. She was going to shoot for that. She took course after course, credit after credit, certification… certificate after certificate. And eventually she became the first woman and the second person of color to work at the skilled trades at Tarrytown General Motors plant. And, eventually, she did have two lovely children, and they had an opportunity to live in New York, with opportunities that she felt she did not have. And one of those children have told you the story of their mother, Barbara Jean Macklin.
Listen and move as this spoken word piece takes your mind and body through an insider’s/outsider’s understanding of immigration, identity, and family. The story began when Arianna and her now husband wanted to get married and had to prove, with evidence, that their love for each other was real. Complexity arose as they entered the immigration process better known as: K-1 Non-Immigrant Visa. As they hit barrier after barrier, they quickly learned how unpredictable the U. S. was about immigration,
Immigration Stories by David A. martin and Peter Schuck (Non-fiction)
Mama’s Nightingale: A story of Immigration and Separation, By Edwidge Danticat
Living and Traveling Abroad
My name is Arianna Ross. It was 2006. I was watching the sunset – the sky was a wash of purple and peach. I, I turned to face my boyfriend, Alexandre. He was smiling; there was a twinkle in his eye.
Right behind him was a statue of the Madonna holding baby Jesus, awash with the same colors as the sky. He looked at me, “Você quer você orar comigo? Do you want to pray with me?” We held hands and we took a deep breath in and were silent for a moment.
When I opened my eyes, he was looking at me hesitantly. And then he said to me in a very tentative voice unlike his normal voice, “Você quer ser meu noivo? Do you want to be my fiancé?”
For the next 24 hours, we were in pure wedding bliss. We discussed where we were going to get married. The kind of food we were going to eat, the type of music we were going to have and, of course, the most important part for both of us – the ceremony. We decided that my parents would say prayers in Hebrew and that his parents would say a few prayers in Portuguese. And we would have a master of ceremonies run the entire event.
We were excited until we sat down in front of the computer. We decided that we were going to spend the first half of our life in the United States and the second half of our life in Brazil, which meant that we had to get married in both places. We turned on the computer, we loaded the USCIS website, the Immigration Services website, for the United States.
We looked up the K-1 fiancé visa. There were nine pages of instructions.
Step number 1, fill out the I-129F document in dark ink. Step 2, gather evidence that proves that you are planning on getting married and staying married. That proves, essentially, that you are in love. Evidence that proves that we are in love?
I called Immigration Naturalization Services. I asked them, “What exactly do you mean by evidence? What kind of evidence or what form of evidence? I mean, I recognize that there are people who try to dupe the system. We’re not one of those people so I would appreciate clarification?”
And the man over the telephone calmly explained to me, “Excuse me, you need, essentially, to provide simple evidence, simple evidence that proves that you are in love and you are truly planning on getting married and staying married.”
“Sir, I get that. It states that in the document, in the instructions. But what do you mean by ‘proves that we’re go… in love’ in evidence? What kind of evidence?”
“Anything you deem necessary.”
All right, I went home to the United States and I started to gather evidence. I gathered photographs, receipts, letters from my parents, letters from his parents, letters from all of our friends. I had two hundred and fifty pages of evidence when I turned in our application. I crossed my fingers and I waited.
Six months passed and we received a letter. They were telling us we had made it to the next step. We needed to turn in more documentation and more evidence. I mailed in 150 more pages and we crossed our fingers and we waited. One year and two months later, we received our interview date in Rio. I got on a plane. I met my now fiancé there and we arrived at 7:45 am at the consular office. Our appointment was not until 11:30 but I didn’t want to be late. We sat and we waited patiently. Eleven o’clock rolled around, 11:30 rolled around, 11:45 rolled around, 12:25. All of the couples had gone in and out, in and out. There was only one consular office left in the entire room when he motioned us in. We sat down and the first thing I noticed was that he was behind a Plexiglas bulletproof window and then he smiled. He had his hand… a stack of papers.
“Here are three hundred and fifty of your four hundred pages of documentation. I would like to return them to you because I really don’t want them clogging up my filing cabinets. If you have more evidence with you, which I’m sure you do, please don’t give it to me. I believe that you are going to get married. I believe that you are in love. I would just love to know how the two of you met.”
“Ach! How the two of us mmmet?
I was ready to screech at the man! My hands actually balled into fists! And then, suddenly, I felt my normally nonverbal husband reach down and relax my fingers. He looked at me. He looked at the man and he began to tell our story. The story that we had documented in all those photographs and all those letters. By the time he was finished, I was surprised. He knew all those details.
The consular office reached underneath his desk. He grabbed his stamp and in one fell swoop, he stamped my husband’s passport.
“Welcome to the United States. I can’t give you your passport. I need to mail it to you. Do you have the self-addressed stamped envelope?”
“Yes.” We handed it to him.
He explained to us that it would arrive in five to six days and then he hoped my husband had an excellent journey. One year and six months later, my husband got off the plane. He looked at me and he smiled – a twinkle in his eye. He was wearing my favorite T-shirt. I knew that we were ready to bring joy into our world and to start our pre-wedding bliss.
What is it like to be so immersed in a culture that a lady on the bus becomes your adopted “Aunt” and a bus driver your “Brother? While Arianna Ross travelled alone through Indonesia, she discovered that sometimes family is defined by a connection and not blood. Many days Arianna lived with only the support of total strangers. Witness the similarities and differences between Arianna’s culture and theirs. (more…)
Growing up, Steven was involved in Boy Scouts and his church and as a teen he advocated for community development in his New Jersey neighborhood. But could he get involved in the rising black militancy of the late 1960s?
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Martin-and-Me
Why was Steven called “too white” by some of his friends? What is “acting white” and how has racism perpetuated these no-win choices of how white or black someone is?
Steven’s neighborhood didn’t have comparable city services such as garbage pickup and water and sewer service. How did the city justify this uneven treatment and what was Steven’s Youth group able to do in the face of this discrimination?
If you were African American in the 1960s would you have become involved with the Black Power movement? In what ways might you show your pride in your African American heritage? For what reasons might you become involved in peaceful protests such as school walkouts or be tempted to participate in more militant actions?
Do you think Steven made the right decision to go to school after Dr. King was assassinated in 1968? How did Steven’s family influence his decisions?
In what ways are we still reaching for Dr. King’s “beloved community”? Do you think it’s an attainable ideal?
Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party by Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin
Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King’s Final Year by Tavis Smiley and David Ritz
A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Clayborne Carson and Kris Shepard
African American/Black History
Civil Rights Movement
Education and Life Lessons
Family and Childhood
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
Hi, I’m Stephen Hobbs. I’d like to share a part of a story about growing up in Bridgewater, New Jersey. Right down the highway from Newark. In the 1960s, at a time when there was great political, cultural racial and social changes.
I blame it on James Brown. In 1967, he came out with a song, “Say it Loud! I’m Black and I’m Proud!” That could have been the theme song for the black consciousness movement of the 60s. When we black people were really in love with the color of our skin. We grew our hair out afro style and we wore dashikis from the motherland. But was I really ready to jump fully into the black consciousness movement? I mean, they were talking about revolution. Already people were frustrated with the slow progress. Even with Dr. King’s great movement of nonviolent resistance. Cities like New York and Cleveland and Detroit erupted in flames of riots during the 1967 summer.
But, as a young teenager, I was involved in community development work. I was a member of a civic organization called The Somerville Manor Youth Association. Somerville Manor was the black neighborhood that I grew up in. It was the only black community in Bridgewater. We advocated for sewer lines and water lines in our community. Most of us, most of the families, had outhouses and some even had wells outside and they used to have to work with hand-pump. We also tried to get trash collection and a place for us to play. But was I really ready for that liberation stuff? I mean, how could I be a radical? My grandmother didn’t like that term. She thought, she thought, one summer when I grew out a beard, she wouldn’t let me into her house because I looked too much like those militants in her, in her our community. And I always wanted to please my grandmother and be a good boy.
Still some of my black friends thought I was trying to act white. Like I was not black enough. Whatever that means. I mean, was it mean, I was an Oreo or because I had too many friends like my buddy, Lougoo Gueotto, who was Italian kid who lived up the street from me? It probably didn’t help my cause, the fact that I was I had a white girlfriend named Elizabeth, with her beautiful blue eyes. In the fall of 1967, I entered high school. And I was elected freshman class president, which is a pretty good thing, considering of the twelve hundred students in my high school, only 26 were black. And I got good grades and made the honor roll.
But still that militancy stuff really got me worried. And then, on April 4th , 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis. Oh, President Lyndon Johnson asked for calm throughout the country. But the voices of anger, rippled across the land. “No justice, no peace! No justice, no peace!” And cities all across America erupted in riots and flames. We kids and some of old men are still around street corners wondering what we should do. Somebody suggested we should go to the nearby mall and trash some of those stores. But at a meeting of the Somerville Manor Youth Association, it was decided that we would boycott school the day after Dr. King’s funeral. Well, I was at the meeting but I really wasn’t feeling it. Skip school? What would my grandmother say?
Well, the day of the boycott I went to school, in part, because as freshman class president, I was invited to participate in an in-school memorial service for Dr. King. Speaking to the entire student body over the intercom, I read a poem that I had composed in memory of Dr. King the night before. The poem went like this:
It’s not how long you live, it’s how well.
Did you give forth your best effort every day?
It’s not how long you live but how well.
Did you travel along the honest way?
It’s not how long you live but how well.
Did you lend a hand to another?
It’s not how long you live but how well.
Did you love all of your brothers?
It’s not how long you live but how well.
After that, Somerville Manor Youth Association met quite a bit. We talked about our dreams and what our positive response would be. We decided that we would build a youth center where we would have recreational activities and afterschool programs. And a place where we can get mentoring for college and career planning. And, most importantly, we would build it ourselves. We would raise the money. And we, we had car washes and fish fries and barbecues. Someone came up with the idea of having a musical review. We called it The Soul Show. In which everyone would participate if they could, playing Motown music. People who can sing or dance or play instruments, auditioned. I couldn’t sing and I didn’t have any rhythm, so I didn’t get a part in the show. I had to watch from the sidelines. But the show was successful nonetheless. It raised a number, a bit of money, and more importantly, we raised some friends. Our minister Reverend Hodge, he started inviting white clergy to our meetings. And soon we were telling our story at some of those, those pastors’ churches, getting more support.
Then we, we figured we could organize a nonprofit corporation to build the center. At the first official meeting of the nonprofit, I didn’t want to go because it was at the Plukemin Presbyterian Church and I guess my tail feathers were still a little ruffled about not being in the Soul Show. But my girlfriend, Elizabeth, encouraged me to go. And I was elected youth representative for the Executive Board. Oh, we had dozens and dozens of meetings. And I worked closely with the president of the organization, Mr. Richard Theale, a white lawyer who inspired me and showed me how lawyers could use their skills to work for social justice.
By the time I left to go to college in the fall of 1971, the plans had already been made. The architectural drawings rendered and the construction schedule set for the spring of 1972. By the fall of ’72, the doors of the youth center opened with volunteer programs for the kids in the area. On April 8th, 1973, we have the official dedication ceremony of the Martin Luther King Youth Center. I was asked to speak and I read the poem I had written five years earlier. Someone read a letter from Mrs. Coretta Scott King. We had a crowd there of people from 23 churches and synagogues in the area. It truly was the embodiment of the vision Dr. King had in his dream of blacks and whites, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Christians, holding hands, singing the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” Now that was revolutionary.
“Ranger Linda” describes her encounter with a group of well-intentioned Chinese Americans bearing bullfrogs. This surprising incident illustrates how cultural differences can have unintended consequences and how cultural awareness can lead to greater understanding and a better outcome for all. (more…)
As the new Protestant Chaplain at the largest men’s prison in Maryland, Geraldine quickly realizes that the midweek Bible service has been overrun by the Crips – a violent, largely African-American gang – and that if something isn’t done quickly the Correctional Officers will close down the service. Going to the root of the problem, Geraldine meets with the head of Crips in her office, but she soon sees that as the two of them are so completely different she will have to establish some common ground before asking for his help with the problem. Will telling him a story of a thug-filled six-week bus trip from London, UK to Delhi, India, that she took decades before, be enough to win his trust? Can the midweek Bible service be saved?
America has more people incarcerated than any other nation in the world (both in number and per capita). Why do you think this is?
According to an FBI report, in 2011 there were approximately 1.4 million people who were part of gangs, and more than 33,000 gangs were active in the United State. These numbers have since grown rapidly. What do you think has happened in this country to allow gangs to flourish?
What do you think that you as an individual can do about both of these problems? What do you think that we as a nation can do about both of these problems?
The Outsiders by E. F. Hutton
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander.
Living and Traveling Abroad
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
Hello, my name is Geraldine. Geraldine Buckley. And in 2007, it never crossed my mind, when I was training to be the chaplain, at the largest men’s prison in Maryland, that after just a few weeks on the job, I would be sitting in my office, across my desk from the leader of the Crips, which is a largely African-American violent gang. And that I would be asking the head of the Crips for his help with a problem.
Well, when that day came, I did what I do best in those situations. After all, you’ve probably realized by now, that I was born and brought up in England. Well, I made him a cup of tea. But I really did have a problem. The midweek Bible service that had about 240 men and…, it had become a meeting place for the gangs, particularly the Crips. Now, the front of the service was fine. That’s where men were opening themselves up to the love and forgiveness of God. And so, they were able to extend that love and forgiveness to other people. Incredible things were happening. But it was just at the back of the chapel that I had such a problem. That’s where the gang members, particularly the Crips, were passing things and they were talking loudly. Well, goodness knows what they were plotting. But they were disturbing the service and I couldn’t have that. And there was another level to this problem, and that is, if the correctional officers realized what a serious gang problem we actually had, they’d close down the service and we might not get it back for months.
Well, I went to the, the head of the, the inmate leaders of the chapel. Ah, we had a church of 600 people behind the walls. And, ah, the leaders, many of them, had theological degrees and I asked them for their input and they suggested that I take all those Crip leaders off the list. In other words, ban them from the service. But I didn’t want to do that, because to my mind, unless they sat under the Word of God, what hope would they have of changing? So, that’s why I decided to go to the root of the problem, which is how I find myself in my office, across my desk from the head of the Crips. Let’s call him El Jefe. Well, he was about thirty-three years of age. He was African-American. He came from Baltimore. And I knew, I only had him in my office for 20 minutes because he’d arrived at half past two and he had to leave by 2:50 in order to get back to his cell in time for count. And if he wasn’t there, he’d be taken off to the segregation unit in chains. I thought, how am I going to establish any common ground, any mutual understanding, or any hope of cooperation, in such a short amount of time.
After all, we were so different. I mean, for a start, he was a man and I’m a woman. He’d been incarcerated for years and he’s got years to go. And I’m relatively new at all this. And then, he was a Crip and I’m a Pentecostal. And then, I had an idea. And I said, “Jefe, let me tell you a story.” I have, but first of all, I said to him, “Jefe, I think I have a really soft spot for gangs.” Well he was, at the time, he was slumped in his chair and he was gently tapping his fingers on the edge of my desk. And he was looking at me through half-closed eyes and I knew then that he was not buying it. So that’s when I said, “Jefe, let me tell you a story.”
“When I was 21, I went on a bus trip from North Finchley tube station in London to Delhi, India. It was called Budget Bus. It was bright pink. It was decrepit. It was held together with duct tape. But it was cheap. Now, I went for two reasons. First of all, I wanted something on my resume the following year, that would make me really stand out from my, my fellow graduates. And the other thing is I really wanted to irritate my mother.”
“Now, I was really concerned about who my fellow travelling companions were going to be because we would be travelling together for six weeks. We would be eating together by the side of the road. We’d be sleeping in tents together. So, we would in effect, be a mobile travelling capsule. And so, I was very concerned when I first stepped on the bus, and my immediate impression was one of a strong smell of unwashed bodies. Well, I tried hard to not let that show on my face but I looked to see where it was coming from. And it was a small group of men who were very thin, they had hollow eyes, and they had track marks up and down their arms. These were drug addicts. And one of them was going to die on a beach in Sri Lanka.”
Well, I looked over at Jefe, and I’d noticed that he’d stopped drumming his fingers, and he was sitting up straight. Good. I had his attention, so I carried on. “So,” I said, “of the other 25 or 30 other men and women on that bus, there was another man who immediately, I immediately, noticed. he was a small man. He was in his mid-20’s. He had shifty eyes. And he sat right at the back of the bus. And I knew straight away, he was Australian because of his accent, And I found out later that his name was Wayne. Well, from that very first moment of getting on the bus, he kept up a loud, continuous monologue of the filthiest language I have ever heard before or since.”
“And then, there was another group of men who stood out to me. They were wearing denim and leather and chains. They had shaved heads. They were covered in tattoos, and they had a really hard look on their faces. These were the Hell’s Angels. Now, it must be said, that these were English Hell’s Angels, so they were a little more refined than their American counterparts. But they were still Hell’s Angels, and they terrified me. Particularly, their leader who was called Grila. Now, Grila was an enormous man. He couldn’t read or write. He had his name tattooed on his knuckles. G-R-I-L-A. And he had this huge tattoo on his arm of a gravestone with the names of men in it. And I looked at those names and I thought, ‘Are they the names of the men he’s killed?’ Oh, that man, Grilla, absolutely terrified me!”
“Well, that bus was far worse than I could have ever imagined on that first day. Wayne and his new group of friends discovered that down the aisle of the bus, there was a trap door that went down to the road. And when the bus was moving, they would have urinating contests. And if anybody objected, they would turn the flow on them. And then, for some reason, Wayne thought it would be great fun to pick on me. And so, for hour after hour, he kept up another loud monologue describing, in vivid detail, what he imagined I did as extracurricular activity.”
“Well, I was only 21 and this went on for day, after day, after day. Well, one of those days, I was sitting near the back of the blus… back of the bus, playing Scrabble with Wayne’s new girlfriend. She and I shared a tent for the first few days of the bus. Well, he said something really crass to her. Really revolting. And, stupidly, I defended her. So, he pushed me back in my seat. And then, he picked up his big fist to hit me. When all of a sudden, over my shoulder, came an enormous hand and it grabbed Wayne’s wrist. And a voice said, ‘No, you don’t. You’re not hitting women. Not on my turf!’”
And Wayne just crumbled and he said, ‘No!’ He said, ‘Don’t hurt me! Don’t, don’t hurt me! Don’t hurt me.’”
“Well, I looked around to see who he was, who’d come to my help. It was Grilla! Grilla had come to help me. Well, that night I was sitting on the bus by myself. All the others were setting up the camp and, and Grilla came to find me. And he was shuffling his feet a bit, and he had his cap in his hand, and he was twisting it, and he kept his eyes on the ground, And he said, ‘Geraldine, I’m really sorry I didn’t do more to help you on that bus today.’ He said, ‘But if we men start eating each other, someone’s going to get killed.’”
“Well, several things happened from that incident. The first thing, was that Wayne kept really quiet at the back of the bus, which was wonderful. And then, that was the first time that I realized that, although it’s best for men and women to work together, sometimes you need a man to stand up and do what’s right. And when that happens, it’s like a key turns in a lock and evil turns to good. And then the other thing that happened was, that Grilla and his group of Hell’s Angels friends, they took me under their wing. And I became the little sister the gang. All very innocent.”
Well, at that moment I looked over at, ah, at Jefe and his eyes were as big as the bottom of s… of buckets. And I said, “I know, isn’t that incredible, Jefe, that a woman who was not long out of a convent boarding school, would end up being the little sister of a gang of hens… Hell’s Angels. But what that meant was, that I got to spend time with them. I got to see who they really were. And I saw that they, they really cared for each other. They had each other’s backs. They were family.”
“So, one day I asked Grilla about that enormous tattoo on his arm, the one of the gravestone with the R.I.P. and the names of men. And he said, “Oh, Geraldine.’ He said, he said, ‘They’re my fallen comrades. They’re my dead friends. If we don’t look out for each other, who will?’”
Well, at that moment, a shadow came across the glass in my office door. It was the correctional officer. And he opened the door. He said, “Chaplain, you’ve got three more minutes with this man, and then he’s got to get back to his cell in time for count.”
I said, “Thank you, officer.” Three minutes. How was I going to get my last point across in such a short amount of time? Tick…tick…tick…And then, I had another idea. I said, “Jefe, you and your, your Hell’s Angels, your, you and your, your Crips friends. You’ve been teaching me such a lot since I’ve been here. You’ve been teaching me about gang warfare and streets and, and gangs. Now, tell me if this is right or not, but from what I understand, you’d never let another gang come in and take your street corner. Is that right?”
He said, “Oh, that’s right, Chaplain.” And he said, “That’s never gonna happen. Never gonna happen.”
I said, “Well, Jefe, this mid-week Bible service, this is our land. The leader of these, this chaplain and mine. And if you continue what you’re doing with your Crip friends, you’re going to draw the attention of the correctional officers. And if you carry on doing it, they’re going to take it away from us. Now, it would break my heart to take you and your fellow gang members off the list. In other words, ban you from the service. But if that’s what I’ve got to do, I’ll do it. Because no one is taking this land away from me.”
And we just stared at each other. Tick, tick. A shadow came across the door in the office and then, and then, Jefe said, “It’s all right, Chaplain.” He said, he said, “I get it. There’ll be no more trouble. I give you my word.”
And you know something? Jefe kept his word from that moment ’til the time I left, two and a half years later. There was no more gang trouble in the Protestant chapel. No more trouble on my turf.
Moving to Junior High school opens Angela’s eyes to a society and culture that she had been living in (Caracas, Venezuela), and yet one from which she was separate. Angela’s story tells a universal truth: we think we are the only ones telling ourselves “ We do not belong here.” That statement is what we have in common. (more…)
When camp started, tension was high between the Chinese kids and Black and Latino kids in Robin’s group. But over the summer, the children began to let their defenses down and make new friends. That is, until Daniela returned. (more…)
In 1972, Marsha worked for the Peace Corp in Jamaica. She became friendly with a neighbor woman named Yvonne. By casually mentioning the town she lived near – Montclair, New Jersey – Marsha set in motion a dream that Yvonne would sacrifice everything to fulfill. Although some would call her an “illegal immigrant” Yvonne accomplished the impossible. (more…)
In 1991 in Lincoln, Nebraska, a Jewish Cantor and his family were threatened and harassed by the Grand Dragon of the state Ku Klux Klan. Here is the remarkable story of how they dealt with the hatred and bigotry, and, in the process, redeemed a life. Based on the book, Not By the Sword: How a Cantor and His Family Transformed a Klansman, by Kathryn Watterson.
Is this a story about religious transformation or about how isolated people need caring relationships?
What does this story say about the power of words and the means of spreading those words? How does anonymity protect the speaker? How do the cantor’s ‘public’ words spread his message?
Would you have considered inviting the former KKK member to live in your home? How was the family able to open their door and their hearts to a man who had hurt so many?
Not By the Sword by Kathryn Waterson, Simon & Schuster, 1995; University of Nebraska Press, 2012.
Education and Life Lessons
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
My name is Pippa White. The story I have for you is a true story. It’s about an incident that happened in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1991. Actually, it’s a much truncated version of a wonderful book called Not By the Sword: How a Cantor and His Family Transformed a Klansman. That book was written by Kathryn Watterson. And I’m very grateful to Kathryn for letting me tell this story. Actually, there are two people in the story, Michael and Julie, who I know. So I’m grateful to them too. And I’m going to tell the story from Julie’s point of view. I am now going to become Julie.
We had encountered anti-Semitism before. My husband was a Jewish cantor, he had had other appointments in other synagogues in other cities. Anti-semitism was not something we were unfamiliar with but this was different and especially upsetting. We had just moved into a new home in Lincoln, Nebraska after two years of renting. And one afternoon, my husband answered the phone to hear this harsh, hate-filled voice saying, “You’re going to be sorry you ever moved into 5810 Randolph Street, Jew boy!” Two days later we received a package in the mail. On the outside it said, “The KKK is watching you.” Inside there were all these flyers, dozens of brochures and flyers, with ugly caricatures of Jews with hooked noses, African-Americans-race traitors, all of them being shot or hanged. And another message, “Your time is up and the Holo-hoax was nothing compared to what’s going to happen to you!” This was too much. We called the police.
The police came and said they were 98% sure it was the work of one Larry Trapp, the state leader and Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. Larry and his Klansmen had terrorized many Jews, blacks, and Vietnamese in Nebraska and Iowa. And said the police, “He’s dangerous. We know he has explosives.” Now they explained that he was in a wheelchair. He had lost both legs to diabetes but they said he had firebombed four or five African-American homes in Lincoln and the Indochinese Refugee Assistance Center in Omaha. And, unbeknownst to us, the police felt Larry Trapp was planning to bomb the very synagogue where my husband was the spiritual leader. Last thing the police said was, “So lock your doors and don’t open any more unlabeled packages.”
Well, we didn’t get any more packages nor did we get any more phone calls. But Larry Trapp had done his work very well. We had been terrorized. We couldn’t open the mailbox without wondering if there was a letter bomb in there. We worried about our three children and every time a car drove slowly by the house, we had a little panic attack. Larry Trapp had done his work very well. Perhaps because of this, I couldn’t get him out of my mind. But it wasn’t just the fear, I was also fascinated. I kept asking myself what makes someone like that? I found out his address and I used to drive by his apartment every afternoon after work and wonder, what makes someone like that? And how lonely he must be isolated in all that hatred?
Not long after this we found out that Larry Trapp was on television. He’d gotten himself on some local cable access channel and he would sit there spewing all these white supremacist hate. It made Michael so mad that he said, “He called us. I’m calling him.”
So he called this, Vigilante Voices. All he got was an answering machine but he said, “Larry, why do you hate me? You don’t even know me. So how can you hate me?” Next day it was, “Larry, don’t you know that you’re going to have to answer to God someday for all this hatred?” The third day it was, “Larry, why do you love Hitler so much? Don’t you know that in Hitler’s Germany, one of the first laws the Nazis passed was against people like you, people with disabilities? Don’t you know that in Hitler’s Germany, you’d have been one of the first to go?” Every day Michael left a message. One day Michael said to me, “I wonder if he’ll ever pick up?”
I said, “If he does, offer to do something nice for him. You watch, it’ll throw him completely off guard.”
One day in the midst of this message, “Larry, when you can get rid of all the hate, there’s a world of love waiting for ya,” Larry Trapp picked up, “What #@&%* do you want?!”
“I just want to talk to you, Larry.”
“Why #@&%* are you harassing me? You’re harassing me! Stop harassing me!”
“I’m not harassing you, Larry. I just want to talk to you.”
“Are you black? You sound black.”
“No I’m, Jewish.”
“Well, what do you want? Make it quick!”
And then my husband took my advice, “Well, Larry, we know you’re in a wheelchair. We wondered if we could help you in any way? Take you to the grocery store, that kind of thing.”
Long pause. Michael says when Larry spoke again his voice was different. “That’s OK. That’s nice. That’s been covered. Thanks anyway. Don’t call this number again.”
“We’ll be in touch,” was the last thing Michael said. I think it must have been Larry Trapp’s time in life to be bombarded with love.
A nurse wrote him a letter, and because of his very poor health he was in and out of doctors’ offices all the time, and she said, “Larry, if you could embrace God the way you’ve embraced the KKK, He would heal you of all that hurt, anger, hatred, and bitterness in ways you won’t believe.”
And one day when Larry was leaving the eye doctor’s office, he felt his wheelchair being pushed from behind. He turned around and there was a beautiful young woman. And she said, “I help you. I help you. In elevator.” A Vietnamese woman. And Larry and his followers had been brutal to the Vietnamese community in Lincoln Nebraska.
Michael kept leaving messages and one day, mid message again, Larry picked up. “I’m rethinking a few things.”
“Good,” said Michael, “Good.” Two days later, there he was on television, on the cable access channel, ranting and raving about…well, using every horrible, racial epithet you can think of. Made Michael so mad that he called and say, “You’re not rethinking anything and I want an explanation.”
“I’m sorry,” said Larry. “I’m sorry. I’ve, I’ve, ah, I’ve talked this way all my life. I can’t help it. I’ll, I’ll apologize.”
That night, at the synagogue, Michael asked the congregation to pray for someone who is sick with the illness of hatred and bigotry. “Pray that he can be healed.”
And across town, Lenore Letcher, an African-American woman who had been on the receiving end of Larry’s hatred, prayed, “Dear God, let him find you in his heart.” And that night, the skin on Larry Trapp’s fingers burned and itched and stung so badly he had to take his Nazi rings off.
The next night, Michael and I were just sitting down to dinner when the phone rang. “I want out and I don’t know how.” Michael suggested we get together and break bread together. Larry hesitated and then he agreed. We were rushing around, packing up the food, and I thought to myself, we should take him a gift. And I found a ring of Michael’s that he never wore.
It was a silver friendship ring. All the silver strands wound together. Michael said, “That’s a good choice. It’s always reminded me of all the different kinds of people in the world.” To me, it represented something twisted could become something beautiful. The last thing we did before we left the house was to call a neighbor and say if we’re not back in a reasonable amount of time call the police.
We got to Larry Trapp’s apartment knocked on the door, the door swung slowly open. There he sat. In his wheel chair, bearded. On the door handle on his side, hung an automatic weapon, behind him was a huge Nazi flag. Michael reached forward and touched Larry’s hand. He winced as though a jolt of electricity had gone through him. And then he began to cry. “Here!” he said. “Take these! take these! I don’t want ‘em anymore!” And he put the Nazi rings in Michael’s.
We were speechless but not for long. I remembered my gift. I got down on my knees and slid the ring on his finger saying, “Here Larry, look, we brought you a ring.” He began to sob and sob, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry, for all the things I have done.”
We hugged him and pretty soon there were three people crying. We left Larry Trapp’s apartment four hours later, with the Nazi rings, the Nazi flag, all his KKK paraphernalia including the hood and the beret. And we left with all his guns.
Over the next few weeks, Larry Trapp’s transformation was so complete that the KKK began harassing him. He began to write personal letters of apology to many of the people that he had threatened. He joined the NAACP. He began to go to schools to talk to school children about tolerance. And he and my husband, Michael, were interviewed by Time magazine.
On the very last day of the year, Larry learned from his doctors that he had less than a year to live. We asked him if he wouldn’t like to move in with us. He agreed. Now this was not easy. We had three teenage children, a dog, a cat. I gave up my job to stay home and take care of Larry. But we all chipped in and, and made it work. As Larry grew weaker, he would listen to books on tape. He listened to books about Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Malcolm X, and he began to read and study Judaism.
And one day he surprised Michael and me when he announced that he wanted to convert to Judaism. We said we thought it was wonderful that he wanted to embrace a faith tradition at this time of his life. But if he wanted to embrace a faith tradition closer to his own roots we would understand that. “No. Judaism.” So in June of 1992, in a beautiful ceremony, Larry Trapp converted to Judaism in the very synagogue that a year earlier he had planned to blow up.
In September of 1992, Larry Trapp died in our home. Michael and I were with him, each holding a hand. Before he got too weak, Larry was asked to speak at a celebration for Martin Luther King Jr. This is what he had to say, “I wasted the first 40 years of my life bringing harm to other people. But I believe that God sent Cantor Weisser to me to show me that I could receive love and I could also give love. I’ve learned now that we’re all the same. White, black, brown, there’s no difference. We’re all one race.” Larry Trapp, the former Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan said there is only one race.
When Laura fell in love with Kevin, she was certain her liberal family would love him, too. After all, he was smart, handsome, educated and kind; that his skin was a different color didn’t matter, right? Imagine her surprise when Laura and her father needed to negotiate his discomfort with her sweetheart’s differences. (more…)
The differences were easy to see, Catholic/Jewish, Brown/White, Spanish-Speaking/English-Speaking, Mexican/American, rural/urban. When Carrie Sue and her fiancé decided to marry there were many who thought their relationship would not last long – including the representative from the U.S. Embassy in Mexico who was handling their Visa.
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: No-Aguantara
What do you judge people on when you first meet them? Have you ever made a judgment about a person only to realize when you get to know them better that you were completely wrong about them? If so, did you discover anything about yourself?
Do you think that we learn things about ourselves when we meet people who are different from us? Why do you think that?
Many people, including the American Visa Clerk objected to Carrie Sue and Facundo’s relationship. Why do you think it mattered to the other people?
Why do you think many were surprised that their families did not disapprove of the relationship?
In Their Own Words: Drama with Young English Language Learners by Dan Kelin – a resource for anyone working with 2nd language learners
The Earth Mass by Joseph Pintauro and Alicia Bay Laurel (Carrie Sue and her husband used a poem from this collection in their wedding ceremony and still try to follow its advice.)
Living and Traveling Abroad
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
My name is Carrie Sue Ayvar and just after I graduated high school, I went from Pittsburgh, PA to Zihuatanejo, Guerrero, Mexico. (No aguantará) It’ll never last! That’s what they said! (No aguantará) It’ll never last! They were like wisps of rumors, never said to us directly but rumors that wisped around and spoken always in concerned tones, mostly to our families and friends.
It was 1973. I was only 17 when I met Facundo but there could hardly have been a more romantic setting. It was a warm, sunny day that January morning and it was on a small island just off the west coast of southern Mexico. The air was filled with (breathing in fragrance) mango and coconut oil, salt sea breezes and pheromones.
I watched as a muscular, strong young man, probably about 20 years old, carried several scuba tanks up onto the beach. Oo! The salt water and the sweat made his coppery skin glisten and his long dark hair had streaks of red and gold in it from days in the sun. Oh ho… I had never seen a more beautiful, gorgeous human being in my entire life! Like an Aztec Adonis emerging from the waters! When I could finally catch my breath again, I remember thinking, “The guy’s gotta be a jerk! I mean, no one is that good looking and nice too!”
But (como dice el dicho) as the saying goes, (caras vemos el corazón no sabemos) we see the faces but we do not know the hearts. Now on the surface, Facundo and I had very little in common. He was a Spanish-speaking, Catholic, indigenous, brown-skinned Mexican from a very small fishing village and he lived on a beach while I was a fair-haired, green-eyed, English-speaking, Jewish, white American who lived in a three-story brick building in a very large city.
And our experiences growing up were completely different. I mean, while I watched Tarzan’s adventures on TV, he lived them slicing green hanging vines for cauldrons of water, climbing tall palm trees to gather coconuts, diving off cliffs into beautiful blue tropical waters. I mean, while I went ice skating, he was free diving. From my father, I learned how to make flower arrangements. From his father, he learned how to build dugout canoes.
Para cemos conocemos! But we did get to know each other. And we got to know each other’s stories and each other’s hearts. (E descubrimos) We discovered (las dos querer) that we both loved (el mar) the ocean and the feeling of weightlessness during those underwater dives. (El savor) the taste of salt on our tongues when we came up for air. (El sonido) The sound of the waves drumming against the sands. (E también descubrimos) We also discovered (los dos querer) that we both cherished (familia y mis les) family and friends (mas que) more than everything. (Nos conocíamos) we got to know each other (e nos enamoramos) and we fell in love.
Now it was amazing how many people were there to tell us, “No aguantará, it will never last!” From both sides of the border, there were so many people who disapproved. They would say things like, “Oh, you know he’s only using you to get a green card.” Or (Ay, esos gringos de como de es sabe) You know how those gringos are, man! (rico e consentido) They are rich and spoiled, (ya sabes) you know! Or “Ah, what a shame! She couldn’t find a nice Jewish doctor?”
But all of those things didn’t really phase us! Even when we finally announced our engagement and, to our surprise, we heard rumors of a pregnancy that we knew nothing about! But, as I said, all those doubts and criticisms didn’t really bother us. I mean, we were happy and, to the surprise of many, so were our families. I mean, Facundo had actually met my parents a year before I ever met him; they’re the ones who actually introduced us to each other there on the island. Jesus, his papa and his parents – (madre tomas su propia hija) they treated me like their very own daughter. Dona Christina, his mother, used to say ,”(Tenemos que cuidado de ella) We have to take good care of her. (Sus propios padres están tan lejos) Her own parents are so far away.”
So really, what did it matter to us what other people thought? I didn’t think it mattered at all… but sometimes it does. Since it was hard for my grandparents and other elderly relatives to travel to southern Mexico where we lived, we decided that we would have the wedding in my home town of Pittsburgh, PA.
Now after a 12-hour overnight bus trip, we finally arrived at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. Under a smoggy, gray sky, we waited for hours and hours to finally speak to an American visa clerk. And when we finally did, instead of helping us, instead of telling us what kind of visas we were eligible for, this unfriendly, unhelpful, unhappy little bureaucrat of a man lied to us. Lied to us repeatedly and began to make things up. Let me ask you, do you know how hard it is to get a copy of a form that doesn’t actually exist? Oh, yeah, he knew that he controlled the information and the situation.
But much to his dismay, we did not give up and go home like he wanted us to. Ah, ah, every time we went back, he looked more put out, like, like he was sucking on sour lemons or smelled something foul in the air. I mean, he was, quite frankly, openly disapproving of us. He told us that we were too different and finally, he dismissed us with an arrogant look! “Just go back to your own kind! You are young, poor, powerless and you don’t even realize that I’m doing you a favor!”
(Sigh) Well, (pobres) We were poor; we had little money. (E jóvenes) We were young! Powerless? (Las caras vemos corazones no sabe) You see the faces but you do not know the hearts! His attitude only strengthened our determination – pulled us together! Facundo and I, we found our voices and our power! We did not give up; we went back to that embassy again and again until, at last, we found someone who would listen. Though I will admit, it did take months, a career ambassador, a 3-star general and a United States senator to finally resolve our case!
But we did get a visa and we did get married. Now maybe we were naïve, I don’t know. I know as it was pointed out to us again and again, we looked different and we sounded different. We had different religions and we came from very different cultures and experiences. And (nunca sabes) you never know; there are no guarantees in life anyways. But I do know that we just celebrated our 35th wedding anniversary and, yeah, we’re still happy! (Como dice el dicho) As the saying goes, “Look at the faces and see the hearts!”
When a single girl from Eastern Europe goes to the USA to study, she has to face certain assumptions made about green cards, marriages of convenience, and other things no one prepared her for. Culture shock comes in many shapes and sizes, and graduate school orientations never tell you what “the L word” really stands for… (more…)
Transracial adoption, while becoming more common, remains controversial. What issues can you imagine experiencing (or have you experienced) if you were adopted into a family that doesn’t look like you? How might it be different in an urban area vs. a rural area? How might it be different if the adoption is in infancy or as an older child? What are potential problems? What are potential benefits?
How would you want your differences acknowledged and handled by your adoptive family? How could they support you, make you feel welcome, and find the balance of becoming part of the family while honoring the culture(s) of your birth? How can you imagine asking for what you need and want? What can you imagine a supportive, productive family meeting looking like?
How would you want your friends/classmates to support you if you are (or were to be) part of a transracial, biracial or multiracial family? What are things they might say or do that would be helpful? What are things they might say or do that would be hurtful? How would you want them to ask you what you need/want in way that feel supportive? How could you bring it up to them?
In Their Own Voices, Transracial Adoptees Tell Their Stories by Rita J. Simon and Rhonda M. Roorda
Inside Transracial Adoption, by Gail Steinberg and Beth Hall
African American/Black History
Family and Childhood
Hi, my name’s Nancy Donoval and I want to tell you a story about the best present my sister ever got from me.
I was looking into her eyes and she was looking straight into my mine, clinging to them like I was her life raft. And if I looked away, she would drown. Splinters are painful at any age. I knew that personally. But when you’re 8 years old and one’s been festering in your foot for two days, it’s excruciating. And the fear of the pain getting worse when you take it out is even more so. It was Christmas and my sister said, “This is coming out.” And then she came up to me and said, “I can’t get her to let me take it out. Help me.” And I went, and took Taylor, eight years old, sat her on the couch, and said, “Honey ,when I was your age I got so many splinters and it was so hard. And this is going to hurt but it’s going to be better after. When I was a kid, the only way they could get me to sit still to take the splinter out was, it took three people to do it. My dad would take the needle and he would do the digging. My mom would hold my hand and my brother, your uncle Jack, he would sing to me.
That’s what family does. And that’s what we’re going to do right now. We’ve got three people. Your mom’s going to get the needle. Roy’s going to hold your hand and I’m going to sing to you.” And I did what my brother had sung to me. “Hush, little baby, don’t say a word. Papa’s going to buy you a mocking bird.” Ah, she was so brave. And it took forever but the splinter came out. And in that moment of the echo from this memory of my childhood, I knew she was fully, completely my niece.
And I remembered that day my sister had called me the year before, (Taylor’s 15 now so, this is about eight years ago), my sister called me, the day Taylor moved in with her. They’d been having visits but this was the day Taylor moved in. And she said, “Oh my, I’m adopting you!” Well, my sister is nine years older than I am. She’s the oldest. I’m the youngest. She has a Masters in Business Administration. I have a Masters in Fine Arts. We are different people. And she had adopted me and she really had. Taylor and I are so much alike. It’s amazing to me. We both are theater nerds and she loves the arts. And all her emotions are right on the surface. And my sister is pretty much driven by logic, probably not as much as she thinks she is, but still pretty much driven by logic. And Taylor and I are both driven by emotion. And, oh, we just chatter away to each other. Sometimes I feel like her aunt and sometimes, because her mom was a little bit like a second mom to me, I kind of feel like we’re the two sisters goofing off in front of our mom.
Taylor said to me one day, “Aunt Nancy, I feel so lucky. I don’t think a lot of adopted kids end up in a family where there’s somebody who’s so much like them. Somebody who actually gets them.”
And I said, “Taylor, sweetie, I know for you that’s about being adopted, but I gotta tell ya, it’s pretty rare for somebody who was born into the family to have somebody who really gets them. Who really sees them. I’m just as lucky to have you.” I was really lucky to have her. My mom was always the one who really saw me, understood me, loved my storytelling, was emotional like I was. But my mom had Alzheimer’s and she was disappearing in tiny degrees. And life is so funny, the day I moved our mom, in an emergency move to a nursing home from assisted living, was the day Taylor’s adoption was final. As one who had gotten me came out of the family, one who got me – the one I got – who was like me, came in.
Now, of course, Taylor and I are not the same person and we’re different from each other. She has moved a little bit away from performing. She loves story like I do but she writes and writes and writes and writes. She told me that she feels like “writer” is the key to her identity and it has been the thing that has formed her since she was in sixth grade. She’s about to start sophomore year of high school. She has seven books she’s written. And she writes them and rewrites them in composition books. And then she types them and then she edits them. I would never have that. I tell stories out loud. I don’t write them down. Oh, we both love story.
She is taller than I am. She makes friends in grade school easier than I did. And we don’t really look alike. She’s tall and thin like the boys in our family are. The girls in our family are a little bit more, um, round. And also, we do not have the same skin color. I have to tell you, I make my sister, well…Let’s put it this way, my sister makes me look deeply tan. And Taylor is a rich, rich brown. And again, she makes friends so easily. She is in a grade school where there are kids of every color in the world. My grade school, oh sure, we had people who were German and Italian but the big difference between us and the rest of the world was we were Catholic. And there were other people who were public. I didn’t really think about black and white. Probably because there weren’t really any black people in my family. And here’s Taylor. Not in my family, in my neighborhood, in my school, in my life, they just weren’t. And here’s Taylor, who’s in this school with all these different colors. And I’m seeing pictures with her with all her friends. And, oh, she’s dating this boy and she’s dating that boy. Well, I’m not quite sure what that means in sixth grade, but she’s dating this one and dating that one. And they’re white, they’re black, they’re Asian, their everything. And I asked her if she ever got any flack from the kids in school about, you know, being with somebody of a different race.
Because when I was in high school, I ended up having this guy I met at Junior Achievement camp and he was black. And we weren’t really dating, but we enjoyed each other. And he asked me to his homecoming dance and I was excited to go. I liked Cal. And his parents said, “No, you can’t go! You can’t go to the dance with her.” Because they were afraid for him that if he brought a white girl, now this was the 70s, but still if he brought a white girl, they thought he would be in danger.
And here’s Taylor with all these different people mixing around colors and I asked her if she ever got any flack. And she said, “Well, not like that.” She said, “But every now and then, people will be like, ‘No, no, no, no, you two don’t look good together. You would look better with him and she would look better with him,’ and that seems to be about what color people are.”
We have most of our really good talks in the car. I live in Minnesota now, she lives in Chicago, we talk on the phone, we do Facebook, we do messaging, we text. But our deep talks are in the car or at slumber parties at my friend’s house in Chicago. Taylor comes over and we have a big party. But in the car, somehow facing outward, we talk about hard stuff. And I told her once that I was thinking about doing a story about her because I tell stories. And I tell stories from my life and she’s so important to it. And I asked her what it was like to have been adopted into our family? And what it was like to be the one black person in a really white family?
I remember her first Christmas with us, just looking around the room, our a little clump of people, maybe only 8, 10 people in the room. And she just looked up and said, “All right, we need more black people in this family.” And, ah, she wasn’t wrong but it wasn’t like we could mail order someone for her. I was already dating someone, the other ones were already married, we didn’t have an opening. But most of the time, we don’t talk about race. But I asked her and we had, just had this big Christmas party at my cousins’. And my cousins, there’s thousands of them, and that seems like an exaggeration but when I’m in the room with them it feels true. My first cousins, four them, had 22 kids. There’s all these grandkids. I can’t keep track of them. They all live in the same neighborhood. They all go to the same school. They all know each other so well. I go to that party, I feel out of place and I’m related all of them. I’ve known them since I was a kid, since they were kids. But they have such a family dynamic. And I remember when Taylor was little and first going to those parties. She just ran around playing with all the other kids. But as she’s gotten older, she’s ended up being a little more separate. She doesn’t feel comfortable at the parties anymore. And I asked her about it and she said, “Well, I think as you get older, your heart gets smaller. I think you get more judgmental. Not everybody but some people do. And you see the differences more, nobody really says anything. But I just feel really different there all the time.” And I asked her if she felt that way with us and just our small family. She said, “No. No, not with you guys. But there I always know I’m different.”
And we talked about how much of that was her color being different, and how much of that was her being adopted, and how much of that was just simply the family dynamic of all these kids who go to school together and know each other really well and they don’t know her. But it turned out people do say things sometimes. She had one person at the party she really liked. She’s great with the kids, and she has one second cousin something or other removed, Claire, who she loves playing with and watches at the party. And they were going to play princess. And Claire said, “OK. I’m going to be the princess and you’ll be my servant.”
And Taylor said, “Ummm. I would like us both to be princesses.”
And Claire said, “Umm hmm, not how it works. I’m the princess because I’m white and you’re the servant because your black.” Claire didn’t mean anything by it. She was going from what she’d absorbed from TV, from movies; you look at the casting. She loves Taylor. But Taylor went in the bathroom and cried.
And then she came back out and said, “Claire, we are living in a castle with no servants at all. We are in a castle where the princesses take care of themselves.” But it’s harder for her to go to those parties because, though she still loves Claire, Claire was her safe zone, and her zone doesn’t feel safe anymore.
My sister tries so hard. It’s trans-racial adoption, how do I make her feel like she can fit in? Taylor told me my sister was asking her, “Do you want to celebrate Kwanzaa? We could celebrate Kwanzaa. I could look up how to do it.” And Taylor’s like, “None of my black friends in school celebrate Kwanzaa. No, I don’t care about celebrating Kwanzaa.”
You know, “Do you want to go to a traditionally black African-American school? Do you want to, we can go to all the museums?”
And Taylor’s like, “Thank you. I appreciate it.” And she does appreciate it. But she’s like, “You know, mom doesn’t force it on me, which is great. It’s not like, ‘No, you must be African-American.’” Taylor said, “I don’t really think about color that much, unless somebody brings it up. I mean, I know, I know I’m black. But I don’t think about it. I don’t really see color very much. I just…I’m just me.” She’s so good at being just her and it’s how I am. I know I’m white but I don’t think about it very much. Except, I really worry that there’s going to come a time in her life, because she’s black, she is going to have to think about it. And I want to protect her from that. And I want a world where we really cannot be color blind because her color is beautiful. But where we can be like Taylor and I try to be. People who see the inside. People who just enjoy people and make friends easy.
I asked Taylor if she had any advice that she would give to someone who was going to be adopted into a family of a different race. And she said, “Hmm. I don’t know. I guess I would tell ‘em, keep an open mind because no matter what color they are, they’re gonna be your family.” And Taylor…Taylor has connected me to my family so much more deeply. She really is the best present my sister ever gave me.
The Chicago Public Schools were almost totally segregated in the 1950’s when Gwen’s participated in an accelerated English program and first integrated a South Side High School. She succeeded in getting an “A” in the class but had an encounter with the police that threatened to overshadow her academic accomplishments. (more…)
During the 1950s, Gwen’s mother, like many African American parents, ritually sent their children down south for the summer. Gwen remembers the rich experiences with her grandparents on the farm but also many painful and dangerous racist encounters which greatly impacted her. (more…)
After fishermen in the Okefenokee Swamp give Elliott two fierce looking mudfish, he finds himself on a hilarious cross cultural journey learning how to cook the fish, and later meets a number of challenges learning how to tell the tale.
What does food and traditional cuisine mean to people in different cultures?
What is soul food? What is a favorite food from your ethnic background?
Everybody’s Fishin’- A Cross-Cultural Fishing Extravaganza CD by Doug Elliott
African American/Black History
Education and Life Lessons
Hi, my name’s Doug Elliott and I’m a freelance naturalist and herbalist and storyteller and I’m interested in cultural diversity. I’m interested in how different people relate to the natural world and different cultures. But, you know, sometimes it’s a challenge to tell a story that celebrates cultural diversity without being culturally insensitive even though that’s not what I want to do.
Well, I want to tell you a kind of a fishing story. And, uh, and then, I’ll tell ya how I came to tell it the way I did.
Well, I was down in the Okefenokee Swamp. And I’m, I’m a kind of naturalist. I love to get out in the swamp and I’m always kind of sc… foraging and scavenging and trying to, and trying to keep my budget low. And, and, you know, I’m not always that good at fishing.
But, but, um, but I love to talk to the fishermen and, inadvertently, over the years, I’ve learned, uh, that I can often get a fish dinner if I just kind of lay a few hints out there, and just sort of say, say, “You know, if you get too many fish, let me know.” And a lot of times fishermen are glad to share a little of their catch with them, eh.
And so, one day, we were out there. We were, we were paddling out in the Okefenokee swamp. And it’s this mysterious watery wilderness, you know, swamps and cypress trees and water and wading birds. And a lot of people fish there; you know, we were paddling out. We’d paddled out all day and I was coming back. And I see these two, these two, two white guys sittin’ in a boat. And they’re, uh… they looked like they were local boys. And they looked like they knew what they were doin’. They were dropping their fishin’ lines in among the bonnet waterlilies there.
And I said, “You fellers catchin’ any fish?”
And they, “Wo, we gittin’ a few.
“Well, now, if you git too many now, lemme know.”
And these, one of these fellers says, “Well, we got these old mud fish. Now, you know, you don’t want dem, do ya?”
“Mud fish? Are they any good to eat?”
He said, “Well, a black folks eat them but we don’t.”
I thought to myself, “Soul food? You know, we’re talking about cornbread, collard greens, fish, chicken. I, I eat soul food all the time. I thought, “Well, yeah, I’ll, I’ll take those fish!”
And so, I pulled the canoe up there and let me tell you. He flopped these two fish in there. One… the biggest one was about a foot and a half long.
And, let me tell you, this was a beast to be reckoned with. It looked like the, it looked like the essence of swamp, congealed and personified, right there. I mean, this fish had a big fan shaped tail. It had, it had this, this, this shaped like a, like a wood splitting wedge. And it had, had thick armor-like scales and a huge mouth – big, wide mouth like a catfish ’cept this, uh, this mouth had just jaggly, snaggly teeth in it. Had these two little tentacles sticking out, from out of his nose. I mean, this was a creature to be reckoned with.
I said, “Oh, it is quite a fish here.” I said, I said, “You guys don’t know how to cook them?”
“No, black folks eat them but, but, but now we, we, we don’t, we don’t.” And then the guy out in the back of the boat says, “Well, actually, you know, Daddy had a recipe for mudfish.”
And the guy looked around, he says, “He did?”
“Yeah, yeah,” he said.
I said, “Can you tell me?”
He said, “Yeah, but it’s kind of complicated. C… You got a good memory?”
I said, “Here, I’ll write it down.” I reached in my, in my backpack there and I pulled out my sched… my, my notebook and I started, I started writin’.
And he said, “Well, now what ya do is you get ya a nice, soft pine board. And ya just cover it with barbecue sauce and ya lay a bunch of onion rings all over the top of it. Sprinkle it with some garlic and some herbs. And take that fish, you split that fish open. You lay ’im out there on the board, and you put some, put some more barbecue sauce on top of that. More onions, more garlic, pick some herbs. Oregano is really a good herb to put on there, and then, and then some… and a little mustard, a little ketchup. And you put ’im right there against the fire and then you just cook it. And, and you just let it cook ’im ’til he’s really crisp. Then you scrape that fish off and eat the board.”
“Oh, ha, you guys!”
They started laughing.
I said, “Ha, well, thank you, gentlemen. I appreciate that recipe. I’m a go hunt me a board. I’ll go see if I can cook these fish, you know.”
And I’m paddling off, down in a canoe, down there, kinda embarrassed, you know.
I hear them guys. They’re just still laughing. “Ha, ha, did ya see that? He’s writin’ it down, ah, ha, ha!”
So. So, finally, finally, I get down, I get down. and I’m thinking, “Well, man, I’ve got these fish. I want to cook these fish but th… I gotta figure, I gotta find someone who will know how to cook these fish. And I’m going into the dock there and there’s boats going in and out. And there’s people in the concession there selling tickets and things.
And I’m thinking, thinking, “Wha…who is going to know how to cook these fish? Who would tell me, you know?”
And then, all of a sudden, I look. An over on this little, this little spot of land there, there, she is, that wise woman we’ve all been wanting to talk to – a large African-American woman. She’s sittin’ there in a folding chair. She had her fish bucket on one side and her cooler on the other side. She had three fishing poles, I think. Oh, there she is, that wise woman! She has been way… been sitting there in solid, focused contemplation all day. Been contemplatin’ this vast, watery wilderness before her. Those fishing poles, like sensitive antennas, reaching down, probing the depths, bringing home food and sustenance for her family. Oh, she is that wise woman! She would know how to cook a f… a mudfish but can I get her to tell me?
Well, only thing I do is just go over and ask, you know. And she’s a fair distance away there, you know. I start walkin’ over and this… I just go over and talk to her and see what, see what she will tell me, you know.
I see her lookin’ over at me, ya know, kinda lookin’ like, I can almost hear her thinking, “Uh, what’s this white boy want with me?”
Ha…and, ha…and I just kept walkin’ over there and then I see her look back.
“Oh, Lord, he’s still coming.”
She’s adjustin’ her fishing poles, you know, adjustin’ her fish… I came up to her respectfully as I could and I said, “’Scuse me, ma’am. Can you tell me how to cook a mudfish?”
She looked up from under that broad-brimmed straw hat of hers, ah, ha, ha, kinda suspiciously, and she says, “How? Ha, ha, huh, huh, huh, huh, ah, huh! huh, huh, huh!”
I can just see her thinkin’, “This white boy wants a tell ya how to cook a, cook a mudfish.”
You just laugh. Let him tell ya, ya know.”
I said, “No, ma’am. Uh, these fellers gave me mud fish and I don’t know how to cook them. I thought you might tell me.”
And she warmed right up. She said, “Well, honey lamb, they aren’t hard to cook. Now you can’t scale ’em. You have to skin ’em like a catfish. And you take ’em, you put ‘em in a pot and you steam ’em for a while and that meat’ll come off the bones. You take yo fork and you take de meat off de bones. She said, “And then you take and git you some, git you some corn meal and some aig, a little bit a pepper, a little bit a onion. Ya chop ’em up. You make fish balls, fish patties outa ’em and you fry ’em.” She says, “They good!” She said, “They good as a mullet.”
And I thanked her so much. And, you know, we went back to camp. We did that, you know; we made these fish cakes. They were better than any sa… salmon croquettes, better than any crab, fancy crab cakes, I ever had. It was some of the best fish I ever had.
And I was so glad that I had just been brave enough to just go talk and… to this wise woman. And she gave me that good advice. And, you know, I got ta… and I’m thinkin’ about tellin’ this story. And I’m thinking about how some people, you know, these, these white guys, they were, they was, they really kinda thought that this food was, like, beneath them, you know. And of course, of course, that’s, uh, interesting because different cultures have different relationships on that.
And, um, we… later on, that same trip, you know, I was down on the, down on the coast. And I see these two guys fishin’ and they, they had the big, the big surf castin’ rods. Two young black guys. And, and I see ’em castin’ out there and, and these guys knew what they were doin’. Now, I…well, I gotta go talk to the fishermen. So, I went over and talked to ’em and, ha, one a ’em catches a fish.
Oh! I love to be there when someone catches the fish. And he starts, he starts winding this fish in and in comes a big ole catfish, big ocean catfish. Big elegant, long, long fins and, and, uh, long whiskers. And he takes it, takes it off there. Just tosses it down there in the surf like… it, it starts swimmin’ back.
I said, “Don’t you want your catfish?”
He says, “No, we’re fishin’ for sea trout.”
And, uh, and then next he’ll catch another fish. “
“Yes, see that! That’s what we’re looking for.”
And he took that up, put it in his cooler. And he catches another one, another catfish.
“Ah, can I have your catfish?”
You know, and I took those catfish back and I was cooking them. And as we ate those catfish, I kept thinking what if someone asked those, asked those black guys, “You know, are those, those catfish any good ta eat?”
And he goin’ say, “Oh, them ole, white hippies, they eat ’em but they ain’t no good. Ha, ha”
So, okay, so, I’ve been trying to tell that story and I’m been trying to just figure out, figure out how to tell it in the most culturally sensitive way, you know. And I remember one time asking an African-American buddy of mine (he was, he was a storyteller) and asked him what… I was just trying the story out.
And I just said there’s these two guys sitting in a boat when I describe the first two guys. And later on, he said, he said, “Well, you know, you white folks seem to think of yourselves as normal, you know. And that anybody you describe, unless you describe them with an adjective, we just assume is normal, you know, and as white.” “And, uh, and,” he said, “You know, you know, that’s really, you know you just have, to have to think about that. You didn’t give those first guys accents.”
Well, you know, when I tell the story now I give ’em an accent because they were southern. They were southern, southern Georgia good ole boys.
And, and, and um, and, and, um. And so. So, I thought, “Well, how… you know, I don’t want to describe them just southern rural white guys sittin’ in a boat. Uh, you know, it just, it just doesn’t seem like a natural way to talk, you know.”
So, so, I was thinking, “I was just remembering talkin’ to one, one ole b… one ye…one ole fa… ole Georgia, Georgia guy and he was saying, ‘Well, you know, I bone ’n raised ‘round here.’ He says, ‘My granddaddy came down here with a mule and a ba… and a wagon. Law, he’s crackin’ a whip the whole way. You know, I’m jus’ a ole Georgia cracker.’ And lot of people from so… north Georgia, and south Georgia, and north Florida, they call themselves “crackers” because that’s how their… that’s with their ancestry.
And so, the next time I told the story, I said, “Well, there’s these two Georgia crackers; they’re sittin’ in their boats there, you know.”
And, and I always kind of check out the audience and, particularly, if I’m going to tell racially based stories. I want to just make sure I’m not offending anybody. I see. I see this, uh, this one, one black woman in the crowd and I sought her out later on.
And I said, I said, “Did anything, put… anything bothering you about that story? Is that all right?”
And she said, “We need to talk.”
And I said, “Oh, yeah?”
And she said, “Yeah. Yeah.” She said, you call those white guys “crackers.”
“Um, uh, uh.”
She, she said, “Well, you know when I realized it, in the north “crackers” kind of like a, like an, like a racial epithet used by blacks against whites.”
And she didn’t like me callin’, callin’ anyone by a racial epithet.
And, uh, I thought, “Well, uh.”
So, we talked about it a little bit and she said… I said, “What can I call ’em? I just don’t want to say white guys, and, you know.”
And she… I… She… well…
I said, “Well, how about good ole boys.”
She said, “Yeah, I think good old boys would work.
So, next time I told it, I told it, you know… “These two good ole boys sitting there, uh, and in the boat and, uh…”
And then some people say, “Well, good ole boys sort of, sort of implies that these are southerners, sort of a stereotype that applies to certain southerners that has kind of racist overtones.”
Now I don’t know if I agree with that but you know it’s one of those processes that we’re just trying to work on, you know. And so, so, um, so, so, you know, and, and, one of the, one of the things that kinda, kinda gets me sorta realizin’, realizin’ in the course of following this thing, how much privilege I have because I’m white.
And I realized, I realized, sp… especially the kind of livin’… the way I make my, make my livin’ and, you know, I’m always kinda sneakin’ around somewhere, you know. And I look for some fruit trees or, or going someplace I’m not exactly sure.
“Oh, sorry, Officer! I didn’t realize that the fruit orchard there was posted. I didn’t realize there’s no trespassing there. You know, I’m sorry, uh, you know, uh.”
And I realize I can get away with that. What if I was black or what if I was Hispanic and I was caught somewhere like that? It would be a whole different experience. And so, you know, and I realize even, even, like, like when my son, my teenaged son, he’s going, “I’m going to go out,” with one of his black buddies and goin’ out at night, you know.
I said, “Well, just be careful. It’s a whole ‘nother level of prejudice you’ve got to deal with.”
And, uh, and so, so, um, so I’ve been trying to work on this all the time and sometimes I’ll mess the story up.
And, and, uh, and, and, you know, it…but what I realize is that, is that, is that…one, one, one of my, one of my, my African-American coaches says to me, he says, “Look, the main things, man, is that you care.”
And, you know, that’s where everybody’s at. Just the main thing is that we care. So that’s what I’d like to leave you with. So, thanks.
Many Africans and First Nations People bonded together during and after slavery in the Americas and in the Caribbean for protection, acceptance, friendship and love. As a result, many African descendants in these countries also share Native American ancestries. Mama Edie learns while watching old Westerns on TV with her grandmother, Nonnie Dear, a new perception of who the “good guys” or “bad guys” were. (more…)
Mama Edie’s Black Theater Ensemble is invited to perform her original composition called “Metamorphosis” at a university in Iowa in 1970. After what had been a peaceful and joyful journey along the way, the ensemble members come to realize that Civil Rights had not yet fully taken root, not even in the north. (more…)
Jasmin struggles with the decision of where to live: a culturally vibrant Mexican-American community that struggles with safety or a picturesque middle class neighborhood where her son might be the only brown boy on the block. How does this educated Latina seek out community? And how, as we grow older, do we stay true to our values of making a difference in the world? (more…)
How could the new workplace environment been more welcoming to Shannon?
What could Shannon have done to mesh better in the environment?
Should workplaces be more diverse and reflect the surrounding community? Why?
Makes Me Wanna Holler by Nathan McCall
Black Men Ski – Stew at TED –https://www.ted.com/playlists/250/talks_to_help_you_understand_r
African American/Black History
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
My name is Shannon Cason. I worked at a plumbin’ wholesale company in Flint, Michigan. Flint, Michigan is a predominately black city and ah, I was the only black man working in a region. I don’t even know how that happens. But I, I was working there. And many times I used that kind of opportunity to stand out and give a different perspective. And I remember we went out for a drink one day, and we were talkin’ about demanding customers and, and how, ah, warehouse issues and after that the conversation turned to like NASCAR, deer huntin’ and cabins up north. And I didn’t really have a breadth of knowledge about any of those conversations topics. I’m just a city kid from Detroit so I really didn’t really know about those topics. And I just, I love learning and listening to new things. So I just listened in. And after a time frame, I felt like I could chime in or somethin’. So, I say, “You know, I remember when my grandmother took me up north to Mackinac Island to the Lilac Festival.” And no one seemed to really care about that conversation. Everybody just ordered another drink. And it kind of just drifted off into, into space. So I felt like, you know, it’s an uncomfortable place to feel isolated at work and not have certain connections. And, ah, at the job, it kind of went the same way. I wasn’t connecting. Ah, my mistakes seem like they were magnified because where other people, we would take these long orders, very long orders, and you’d miss some things, you know, and the mistakes that I made, seemed like they were larger than life. You know, other people can kind of gloss over a mistake or just kind of like laugh about it or crack a joke because of familiarity or, or connection and I didn’t have that.
So, it got to the point where I was put on a 90-day probation. I never really hadn’t any bad reviews or anything like that. And, ah, I, I remember I moved with my new wife, closer to this job. So I didn’t tell her about the probation. And I was, I was nervous about it. So I started looking for new jobs. Then a new job came and it wasn’t my job. My wife had got a promotion and the promotion was in Chicago, Illinois. And I had to go in to my boss, who had put me on probation, and ask him for this transfer. And it was challenging to get the transfer. He said, ah, um, that there was really no positions for me available in Chicago. And that if I was to move to Chicago, I would have to take a demotion from inside sales to counter sales. And I was looking for new jobs anyway, so I took the job in counter sales because it’s better to have a job than no job. And I moved to Chicago.
And I remember when I started up, it was totally different in Chicago. I went into the building and it was a really diverse situation. You had men, women, Latino, black, white, ah, seniors, younger people. Um, forklifts whizzing by, order pickers high up in the air, racks up to the ceiling, 15 trucks out front, just right in front of the building. And I remember my manager, he was a black man. He shook my hand, showed me to the counter, and said, “Do a good job.” And I did. And I was making good connections with the people in the warehouse, customers; cracking jokes with them, having fun and making good sales.
And after time on the counter, I remember my boss came back out to me, and we walked in front of the building. And we were talking right in front of that rows of trucks, and he was saying that he had he was skeptical about initially hiring me because of the bad report I had from my, my former boss. But he was happy to see the improvement in my, in my performance. And he was telling me that there was a position openin’ up for shippin’ manager and he wanted me to take that position. I had never had any experience with managing 15 union drivers. But he said he’d think I’d do a good job.
And I think I did. I went into the shippin’ management position. And as a shipping manager, that’s like one of the most important positions because you, you, you, everyone in the company knows you, all the sales people know you, all the top management knows you, every part that has to get to customers in all of Chicagoland comes through me. I mean, it’s a big deal. We shipped all the Kohler parts to the Trump Tower. So it’s really big deal.
And I remember, ah, one more challenge. So after the shippin’ position, I asked for another position. And they put me back into sales. And I worked in sales for six months. Then I got my own facility. So I have my own building, with my own shippin’ and trucks and everything. And, ah, and I would sit in my manager meetin’s, with my old boss who believed in me. And he would mentor me on leadership but we would also talk about the Bulls winnin’ a game or we would talk about, ah, places downtown that plays the best blues music. So those types of things where we have a relationship. And, ah, they had this corporate-wide meetin’… was in another state. All the, all the facility managers from all over the country were there: Las Vegas, San Francisco, Chicago, even Flint, Michigan. And I ran into my, my old boss, the guy who I didn’t connect with and, ah, we’d never really, he gave me a bad review, and put me on probation, and gave me a bad recommendation, and I ran into him. And I had my own facility at this time, ‘n mine was a lot bigger than he is, about three times the sales of his facility. And I remember, we talked and we talked about the challenges of running our own plumbing wholesale company and we were related, finally. And it was, it was a cool experience.
So, I just want to say, like if you, if, if it’s times when, when you’re in a com, uncomfortable situation sometimes you have to take the risk, to jump out into a more comfortable situation for your personality.
In 1964, Carmen’s father, a Cuban refugee, went to work at a steel manufacturing plant near Atlanta, Georgia. When, on the first day of work, he asked to take a bathroom break, he was faced with two choices: before him was a “white” bathroom . . . and a “colored” bathroom. Carmen’s father’s solution would foreshadow how this inventive man would ultimately teach his Cuban-American daughters that, in matters of conscience, we need not accept the only choices placed before us.
In 1964 ‘white only’ and ‘colored only’ signs designated Southern public restrooms, water fountains, etc., and these divisions were legal. When Papi confronts the signs, he doesn’t protest their legality, but chooses a creative response. When he says, “I did what any decent man would do,” what does he mean?
How do you think the factory workers viewed their new colleague before the incident and after the incident? Do you think he continued to ‘whiz’ outside?
How does the use of humor in this story help us look at a difficult social issue?
Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America by Juan Gonzalez
Education and Life Lessons
Family and Childhood
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
Hi, my name is Carmen Agra Deedy. The story I’m going to tell you is called, “My Father the Whiz.”
I grew up hearing stories everywhere I went. It was inevitable, really. I grew up a Cuban refugee in a small southern town. My family came to this country when I was three years old and the little town that embraced us was called, and is called, Decatur, Georgia. Now, back then you couldn’t go three steps without stumbling into a story. You see, turned out, Cubans and Southerners were not all that different. They worship their ancestors, they gathered around food and they were unrepentant, chronic talkers. And so, the stories that I learned told me more about the people than anything I was ever taught. One of my favorite stories ever is about my own father. Now by the time I was 16 or 17 years old, I thought I‘d heard every story my father had to tell. Oh, the hubris of the young. But one afternoon my mother called me to the kitchen and said, “Carmita, take this cafecito to the men outside. They’re playing Dominoes; they’re gonna be out there for the next five hundred years. And then come back inside ‘cause you gotta help me with the dishes.” Which insured I was staying out with the men. Well, I walked out, (screech), opened the screen door, and saw all these Cuban men in their crisp guayaberas, tightly gathered in a circle around an old folding table littered with domino tiles. They were not under a banyan tree or a mango tree but a Southern Magnolia. Life is just weird when you’re a refugee.
I started to walk towards them through the miasma of cigar smoke, when I heard my father begin a story. Like I said, I thought I knew every story my papá had ever told. But you see, stories are funny. Stories are like, well, sometimes, they are like a fine wine. You don’t uncork them until the person who’s going to drink, is going to be able to really savor it and know how good it is. My dad must have decided I was ready. But first he called out, “Do I smell coffee or would it be that I am so light-headed from thirst that I am hallucinating?” Now, the Irish may have saved civilization but I assure you the Cuban gave you irony and sarcasm. I plunge towards the men and then they all said, Niña, cómo estás?” And I kissed everyone, it is the way of my people. And as the coffee was passed around, my father continued his story, as though I was not there. I wasn’t going anywhere.
I leaned into the tree, and he said, “And so you know, we had only been here for a few weeks,” less than a month, it turned out before my father finally found work. His English was cursory. He had been an accountant in Cuba. Now he came here with little understanding of the language. He was so grateful to have found work. Well, the first job he found was at a steel manufacturing plant. He was so eager the first day of work that he showed up an hour early and so nervous he drank nearly an entire carafe of coffee before he walked in. Now he was coupled with a man who was supposed to teach him welding—basic welding. (Google, figure it out. It’s a verb.) As he was learning to weld, Big D, a big African-American man, and my father found a way of communicating. Using hand signals and a few words my father knew in English. My father knew, like I said, not only little English, he knew almost no Southern black English. Big D didn’t speak Spanish. And yet, they soldiered on…or soldered on. In any event, within a small space of time, an hour or two, my father said he was starting to get the hang of things, And then, BAM! Like a hammer on an anvil, his bladder just felt like it was gonna burst—all that Cuban coffee he had! Well, he tried to ask Big D…well…This is how he said it went. “Ah, por favor, uh, please, Mr. Big D….ay….ti, ti ti…Cómo se dice? Dónde está baño?”
“What’s that you say, Mr. Carlos?”
“Ay, ay, ay…El baño?…Ah…,” my father unscrewed his thermos, and then he tipped it upside down to show it was empty now. Big D seemed relieved, “Hold on, Mr. Carlos.” And then disappeared around the corner. When he came back, he brought his own large, green thermos, which he unscrewed, and he began to pour my father another cup. “No, no, no!” My father looked like he had just been offered a live rattlesnake. And Big D, thinking that it was he that had offended him, ‘Well, if you don’t want to drink from my cup…” “No, Señor, no, no, no!” My father also increasingly frustrated being thus misunderstood, said, “No, eh, Señor, por favor,…Cómo se dice?” And then he realized, he knew just what to do. He unzipped, an imaginary zipper, fly, and then he made the international symbol, um…for emptying the male bladder. And Big D started to laugh out loud. And then he stopped. And he cocked his head, sort of like the RCA Victor dog and mumbled something to himself. Which my father said to this day that he’s not sure of the words. But it sounded something like, “not my problem, not my problem.” And finally said to my father, pulling him by the shirt, pointing, “Right there.” And he pointed down a long row of men, machinists at work at their stations. At the very end of the corridor, there was what looked like a hallway or corridor. My father thanked Big D and he gunned it. He started, at a clip, down that line of men and as he passed them,..now remember this is the first Latin man in this all black and white factory, the year was 1964, the men started shutting down their machines. And it got quieter and quieter except for the footsteps of the men behind him. Now, my poor father had only been in this country for a short amount of time. He was learning the customs. He wasn’t sure. This thing was uniformly odd. Where he came from men took care of this sort of business by themselves without spectators. When he reached the hallway, however, the crowd began to swell. And it looked like they were everything from laborers to two supervisors, black men, white men. And then he found himself confronted with a conundrum. A puzzlement. At the end of the hallway were two doors. Some of you know where this story is going. One said white and one said colored. And though his own tragic and troubled country had had many problems, this was not one that my father was familiar with, not in this way and he didn’t know what to do. And at this point he heard in the back, someone begin to laugh. And a man called out, “Hey, Mr. New Man, you pick whichever one you want but when you pick one, you stick with it.” My father looked at the men, looked at the doors. And he caught sight of Big D’s face in the very back watching him curiously, studying him. Now this the point in the story where I interrupted. Remember the tree…me leaning against it. I couldn’t stay there anymore. “Papi, what did you do?! I mean, did you quit, did you…”
“Carmen, just a moment, when you have to go you have to go. But, you know, I had come from a country where I had learned sometimes you have to follow your conscience. You cannot go left, you cannot go right. You have to find your own way.”
“Pop what does that mean…”
“Uno momento!” Now the men had leaned forward too.
“Carlos, what you did you do?”
“Can I please finish my story?” And he said, “I did the only thing a decent man with a full bladder could do. I push my way through that crowd of men, I go outside and I whiz in the woods!”… Si!
What does the storyteller’s phrase “understanding begins in misunderstanding” mean?
Have you ever been in a situation where you were the only person who looked like you? What did you do and what happened?
What supports were needed in Julie’s neighborhood so that the long-standing residents didn’t feel misplaced or overrun and the new residents understood how they were perceived? What might everyone do to build bridges and create community?
My name is Julie Ganey. And this story I’m going to tell you is an excerpt from a longer solo show, I have called, “Love Thy Neighbor…Till It Hurts.”
My husband and I first moved to our current neighborhood, Rogers Park, about 15 years ago in 1999. Rogers Park is, literally, one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the world, in terms of culture, ethnicity, socioeconomic, gender, age, everything. So, we were looking for a condo we could afford near public transportation, and we just happened to find one in the north of Howard area which just happened to be in Rogers Park.
So, the first week that we moved in there, it was Halloween. And I was driving home from Evanston, where I’d been teaching six and seven-year-olds drama. And I was dressed like a duck. So, when coming into my new neighborhood from the back, and taking a shortcut, and on the sidewalks, there are kids and moms. Kids are in costumes, moms are pushing strollers. And as I turned from this one little street onto another, I hear or maybe feel something go, thump. I stop the car. I’m not sure what’s happened. Had I hit something or run over something? But it actually, it felt like something had hit the car. So, on the sidewalk across the street, a group of kids and moms are staring at me.
I opened the door and get out and I’m hit on the hip with a raw egg. And I say, Oooh, what’s going on?” dumbly. And another egg hits me, this time on my face. And this egg is running down my face, I say, “Look why are you doing this?” You know.
And this little boy, in some kind of costume, maybe a pirate costume, he yells, “Go on back to your own neighborhood!”
And I say, “No, no. This is my neighborhood. I live here.”
And another kid yells, “Yeah, you don’t belong here.”
And I say, “No, no. I do. I live here.”
And I’m standing there and I’m realizing I’m making the situation worse by not just getting in the car and driving away. But I don’t understand why nobody is telling these kids to stop. And then, this little girl in a princess costume, she, kind of, yells like, “What’s that costume? What are you supposed to be?”
And another egg hits the car. So, sometimes they hit the car, sometimes right at my feet. And I say, “Oh, I’m a duck.”
And pirate boy yells back, “You’re not a duck. That’s not a duck costume!”
And I say, “Oh, well, I’m a mallard. You know, I have a duck bill in my car.”
Somebody else, “Screw you, duck!”
And finally, I’ve had enough and I got back in the car and I drove away. And in the rearview mirror, everybody on the sidewalk was just staring at me.
And when I got home, I was upset. And my husband Brad, right away, he wants me to describe the kids. “Which way were they walking? What did the tall kid look like?”
And I keep saying, “No, no. I’m not hurt. You’re missing the point.”
But he didn’t listen. He and the local beat cops ended up questioning a bunch of random kids on the block for a couple hours.
So fast forward a year and a half. I’m now teaching a summer drama camp for 25 kids in the neighborhood at the local school, a block away from our condo. It’s hot, it is hard, (my learning curve is very steep), and I’m eight months pregnant. So, my co-teachers and I spent the first couple of weeks negotiating discipline, figuring out how to meet these kids where they were. But finally, around week four, everything started clicking. And it started seemed like we’re really going to get some kids onstage to do a show, you know. Every day, we would spend some free time outdoors after lunch. And the younger kids would play on the playground and the older kids would shoot hoops with some of the counselors on the small court next to the school. I would always plant myself on the stairs and listen to the older girls talk about the boys.
And this one day, I remember, Jessica was emptying Hot Tamales into my palm and I look across the playground and I see this group of adults, mostly men, about 10, gathered on the sidewalk next to the little kids, about maybe 25 yards away. Two of the men in the center of the group, dive at each other and start fighting, in this tight, snarling knot. And the folks are eggin’ them on. And before I can think anything, I’m up. I’m waddling across the grass and I’m yelling, “Hey, hey, stop it! You can’t do this here!” You know, and they’re paying no attention.
You know, all the kids are noticing. All of a sudden, they realize something exciting is about to happen. But I continue and I’m yelling, “Get away from here!”
And finally, one woman in the crowd notices me, and she yells, you know, “Mind your own business! This ain’t got nothing to do with you!”
And I say, “No, it does. I’m in charge of these kids. Move away from here!”
And meanwhile these men are fighting and it’s very violent. They’re banging against cars and they’re rolling on the sidewalk. There’s grunting. And I noticed that one of the men in the onlooking crowd is carrying a bat or a big stick.
And I yell, “Get away from here or I’m calling the police!” and I feel this wave of dizziness.
You know, maybe it’s adrenaline or a familiar deja vu of realizing myself to be ineffectual, in a situation that I’m making worse, probably. So, I start fumbling, 9-1-1 and the woman sees this. And she says, “I said, mind own business, fat butt!”
And then from right over my, my left shoulder, I hear Jessica yelling back, “She ain’t fat, she’s pregnant!”
And then I realize all the camp kids are, like, right next to me. And I start shooing them back inside. I’m just desperate to get them inside before something really horrible happens in front of them. But Deja, another one of my teenage girls, is reaching over me and she’s yelling, “Don’t you talk to Miss Julie that way!”
And other kids are joining in. “Yeah, she ain’t done nothing to you! Leave her alone!”
And then somebody in the crowd yells back, “Shut up, Deja!”
And all of a sudden, it feels really dangerous. The energy outside the fences changed. And I say, “Come on,” and I get everybody inside as fast as I can.
Once we’re back inside, you know, the kids are revved up. They’re excited. Some of the younger kids are re-enacting the fight on the stage. The older kids are talking about who knows who in the group of fighters. And who they’ve seen around the neighborhood before.
Deja takes my arm protectively, she says, “Are you all right, Miss Julie? You know, your face is all red. Don’t worry, my cousin knows that Gigi, I’ma gonna tell him to fix her.”
They’re all revved up but I am exhausted. You know, I, I’m not up for any kind of teaching moment with these kids, who know infinitely more about violence than I do. And then this boy, Anthony, one of the older kids that everybody looks up to, shuffles over and he sits down in a folding chair near me. And he says, “You can’t do that.” He’s kind of looking at his gym shoes. “You can’t do that. It’s stupid. People around here don’t want some white woman telling them what to do.”
And I, and I say, “But, but I would have told them to stop it if I was white or Chinese or Hispanic or whatever.”
And it kind of shakes his head and he says, “You just shouldn’t get in people’s face, like, you know a better way for everything.”
I felt myself flush a little bit because, yes, I did think I knew a better way. I didn’t want me or these kids living in the middle of violence. But these kids, some of whom might have thrown eggs at me a year and a half earlier, who knows, they saw what I didn’t. They saw this woman who had moved into a neighborhood, with very little understanding or curiosity about the community that lived there, or the social disruptions and gentrification taking place there. They felt ownership over the neighborhood. It was theirs to defend. You know, maybe they weren’t moving into the fancy new condos but they were growing up on the same blocks their parents had. And they knew about the boundaries that have to be worn away not just painted over.
I think, now, maybe you have to let a neighborhood teach you how to be a good neighbor there. Across all the chasms that divide us and there are chasms that divide us, skin color and money, where we’re from, and what we have, and what we don’t have. Understanding begins in misunderstanding. With one awkward step after another, stumbling forward and surrendering and listening and listening and listening. Until one day, you realize, you’re walking around a place that finally feels like home.
Carol’s father is told he is not permitted to run on his college track team at the University of Pennsylvania. Two Jewish runners in the 1936 Berlin Olympics are not permitted to participate in the 400 relays. All three are Jewish and all three have the same coach.
In the story, Jesse Owens spoke up and told the coach, “Coach, I’ve won my 3 gold medals, I’m tired. Let Marty and Sam run.” The coach pointed a finger at him and said, “You’ll do as you’re told.” Why do you think the coach wanted the Black men to run in the Olympics but not the Jewish athletes? By deciding not to let Marty and Sam run, of what do you think Coach Robertson was afraid or resisting?
What could Stanley’s teammates have said or done to enable Stanley to race in all the track meets in which he was not allowed to run? Would you have been willing to stand up against discrimination even if it meant not running for the team?
The ending quote in the story by William Lloyd Garrison was important to Stanley. How do you think its importance related to the discrimination he encountered?
Do you think what happened to Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller could ever happen again in today’s Olympics?
The Nazi Olympics: Berlin 1936 Jewish Athletes — Marty Glickman & Sam Stoller.”
Hi, my name is Carol Kaufman-Kerman. It was 1927 when my father was nicknamed Speedy. Speedy Stan. Now he got tagged Speedy for being the slowest runner at Camp Lenox. Camp Lenox is a boys’ camp in the Berkshire Mountains in Western Massachusetts. Oh, it could have been worse. He could have been nicknamed “Wizzy” or “Leaky.” He peed in his bed every night. I mean, he was five years old. And so, every morning his counselor would wash out his sheets, hang ’em out to dry on the front porch, then drag out that mattress for everybody to see in camp. My father was humiliated. He was humiliated; he wanted to keep this a secret. He just wanted his parents to come, take him back home to Brooklyn. I mean, gosh, eight weeks at summer camp for a five-year old. It’s like a sentence.
Now my dad didn’t know it at the time that he’d be feeling, later on in his life, these same icky feelings of feeling different. Back in the 1930s and the 1940s, anti-Semitism was on the rise, not just in Europe. It was also on the rise in America as well. Now this was 12 years after my father was nicknamed Speedy for being so slow. He actually had earned a spot on the track team of the University of Pennsylvania. But unlike the other player… unlike the other runners, he was relegated to the bench. He was never put in any meets at all and it wasn’t because he was slow. It was actually… he was very, very fast and everybody knew it. His coach knew it, his teammates knew it. He more than proved himself during practice. But it was because he was Jewish. Now his coach knew that he was fast but his coach didn’t want this Jewish boy to shine.
His coach was none other than Lawson Robertson. Now Lawson Robertson was the United States Olympic track coach. The one that took the track team to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. It was a very controversial Olympics. It was where Hitler had grandstanded his, his strong Aryan German athletes. And we had two runners, the American team had two Jewish runners on their track team. There was Marty Glickman and there was Sam Stoller and, uh, they were slated to run in the 400-relay. A day before the race, Coach Lawson Robertson and the other coaches, well, pulled all the kids in.
And he said, “Ah, there’s going to be a change. We have to pull out Marty and Sam; they can’t run in the 400. We, we ha… we’re doing this because we heard reports from the Germans. They said that they are practicing in secret and that they’re saving their top, top sprinters for this 400-race so we, we have to pull out Marty and Sam. I mean, the reasoning just… it didn’t make sense. I mean, Jesse Owens and Ra… Ralph Metcalfe were put in instead of Sam and Marty. And, granted, we all know that Jesse Owens, I mean, he ordered… already won at that point, the gold for the 100 and the gold for the 200 so he was fast. Nobody could be faster than that. But there was another reason he, he wanted to put in this other player from the team. But this runner clocked consistently slower times than Glickman and Stoller. So, the whole thing didn’t make sense.
Now Jesse Owens, at the meeting, he spoke up. He said, “Ah, come on, coaches. Let them run. They’ve been working at this for over a month. I mean, I’ve already gotten three golds. I’m tired. Let them have their chance.”
And the coach said to him, “You’ll do as you’re told.”
And so, Glickman and Stoller, they didn’t run. And, of course, the, uh, the Americans came in first. And, well, Glickman and Stoller, they knew why they weren’t running because they were Jews and they knew that Coach Robertson wanted to spare the fear or the embarrassment of having two Jewish boys up on the winning podium. Now if my father hadn’t told me about his experience at University of Pennsylvania, I may not even have known about Coach Robertson during the 1936 Olympics or maybe what I would have thought that it was just a one-shot deal and that he had redeemed himself afterwards.
But three years later, my father was on the team and he wasn’t allowed to one… run in one meet. It was the day of the Penn Relays, the big, big race and the coach’s star runner got injured. Coach looked at my father. He said, “All right, Kaufman, off the bench. You’re running today.”
My father, he knew what opportunity this was. He knew that this was a, a moment that he could prove himself. And I have to think that he was also running, not just for himself, but he was running for Glickman; he was running for Stoller. He was, he was running for all those Jewish athletes that had qualified for the 1936 Olympics but it had boycotted them. Now none of the students or the community knew who my father was. He was, he was a benchwarmer and they were baffled why the… they would even, eh, let him run. But there he was and he had his chance and he got set on the mark. And when that gun went off, my father shot out of there.
He was fast; he was a sprinter. He was really good. And he took off and he was in the lead and all he wanted to do is win that race. I mean, his fraternity brothers showed up to encourage him… and the ladies from the sorority. But he wasn’t thinkin ’about them; he wasn’t thinkin’ about the coach. He was just thinkin’ about winning. He was thinking about beating the best time and he was thinking about breaking racial barriers. And so, his biggest contender was another guy from an Ivy League school. And as they were coming into the finish line, they were neck and neck. And then at the finish line, against the Harvard resentment of Coach Robert Lawson (Lawson Robertson), my father won. And all the reporters from the Philadelphia papers, they came running up to him and they said, “Who are you? Where did you come from? What’s your name?”
And then they went over to coach Lawson Robertson and they said, “How come you never played this Kaufman kid before?”
And he looked at them. He stared at them and then he stammered out a bold-faced lie and he said, “Ah, he’s been sick.”
His excuses never got any better than the 1936 Olympics. But after that, my father, well, there were articles in the paper. I mean, the coach had to play him. There was too much pressure from the alumni, from the community. They wanted to see my father run. Now the coach never really did mentor him like the other players.
And my father said, “He never acknowledged me.”
I’d like to end this story with a quote. It’s a quote that my father had taken to memory and he used in his life when he was up against an obstacle or he wanted to encourage us kids. And he’s… he said, “Well, I want to tell you, it’s a, it’s a quote by an American abolitionist. His name is William Lloyd Garrison. And my dad would laugh and say, “That guy, he was really a stubborn guy like your old dad.”
My father’s right. He is stubborn. He’s stubborn and determined to take a nickname like Speedy given to him because he was so slow and to turn it around to be called Speedy because he was so fast. And he’s stubborn and determined and patient to wait for his opportunity to run against discrimination. The quote, “I am in earnest, I will not equivocate, I will not excuse, I will not retreat a single inch and I will be heard.”
Talking about World War ll was hard for Carol’s father. As a recipient of three Purple Hearts, he shares his story of anti-Semitism at boot camp, his sense of Jewish identity with a stranger in Paris and how he mentally stayed strong and survived the front lines by wearing “blinders.” (more…)
Susan takes her young adult sons to Guatemala to be inspired by the Catholic clergy, religious and lay people working for justice there. Her own idealism is challenged as she hears stories of the atrocities people are suffering because of Guatemala’s civil war. A moment of grace and wisdom from the Mother Superior restores her sense of hope and dedication. (more…)
During the Civil Rights Movement, Patricia’s family moved to the Auburn Gresham community on the south side of Chicago. Hers was one of the first African- American families to integrate the parish school. Over time, Patricia witnessed white friends quietly moving out of the neighborhood as they transferred to new schools. Before long, Patricia understands the meaning of “white-flight” and its effects. Fortunately, because of a few good angels, she was not severely hurt by the negative behavior surrounding her. (more…)
Amber, Misty, and Autumn – three multi-ethnic sisters – offer a sneak peek into their thoughts about self-identification. These storytellers also share a medley of emotional experiences about how they have sometimes been viewed by others. From skin color to hair texture, from humor to poignant reflection, these dynamic young women personify Dr. Maria P. P. Root’s, Bill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage.
Hi! My name is Amber Saskill and these are my sisters.
This is Misty (Hi!) and this is Autumn Joy (Hi!) and we are affectionately called the Sass Lasses and we’re a multi-ethnic background. So our story today is called “Special Blends.” It’s a youthful perspective of multi-cultural, multi-ethnic heritage.
Now we’re a blend of Jewish, African-American and Native American heritage. And the interesting thing about our three blends is that at one point in time, they were all persecuted or oppressed. For example, there was the Jewish Holocaust. There was the captivity enslavement and enslavement of our African ancestors and then, too, our Native American people. They were massacred and their land was taken away from them. But the interesting thing about people who have been enslaved, persecuted and oppressed is that they become stronger, more resilient people and we’re products of that. And even though, personally, I’ve been able to relate always to my different… my different cultures, piece by piece, it was interesting how by watching two films that really helped me to see the plight of mixed people in other areas of the world.
For instance, in South Africa there was a film during apartheid. And apartheid was racial segregation that took place from 1948 to 1994 and that’s during my lifetime. It wasn’t my mom’s generation or my grandmother’s generation; that happened in my lifetime. And to know that people of mixture were persecuted and oppressed because of the way they looked, that really touched me. And in this one film in South Africa, it talked about a girl who looked mixed and she associated herself with that even though that her parents looked visibly white. And even though she associated herself as being mixed, she was outcast from society and disowned by her very own family. And that really touched me on a deep personal level! And, in addition to that, I watched a film that took place in Australia. And it was the true life story of… in the mid 1900’s how the Aborigines and Australians, how they mixed together and had children that, later on, were actually discriminately called half caste. And these half caste were corralled and put into re-education camps where they were tried to be bred out of existence by being sort of diluted so that there was never any evidence that they ever existed before. And that’s called, actually, “the stolen generation.” And to think about these people that were actually sought after because they were mixed, that touched me so deeply!
That is so scary! In an attempt to eliminate a visual reminder of such a union, you know. And on a different level, that’s kind of what happened to my mom and me. We were getting ready to perform for this great storytelling festival. And before we could even get started, the festival coordinators, they slapped this big old sensor bar right across two of our stories. My mom was going to perform a story; it was a really funny fiasco of what happened when she and my dad first got married. (OK, I love that story!) And I was going to perform a story called “My Two Grandmas,” which is really close to my heart. And it’s a story where I bring to life memories of my Grandmama Rose and her Afro-Choctaw background and my Gram Blossom with her Russian-Ukrainian-Polish-Moroccan-Jewish background. And it’s one that tells of how they are from two different worlds but at the end of the story, you see that they’re really dynamic women. And they taught us, their granddaughters, to be dynamic women ourselves. But they did ask us remove the story and those two stories. And so we did; we’re professionals. But we did write a formal letter of complaint and we received a written apology back. But at the end of the day when the sun had set, we had been asked to compromise. And that’s pretty much my life. I’m mixed. I am asked to compromise.
And, really, as surprising as it may seem, as mixed people, we have to compromise all the time. It actually makes me think of something that happened to me not too long ago. A couple of years ago, I went to the DMV to apply for my learner’s permit and I filled out all the paperwork and I turned it in. And the woman behind the desk curtly informed me that I had forgotten to choose a race. And I politely told her that there was no box that says multi-racial so there was no box that I thought was appropriate for me to check. And she impatiently told me that I should just pick one of my races. And it’s funny this… this question comes up so often as… as people with mixed heritages. The infamous question, “What are you?” ((Right!)
And my first inclination is to say, “Well, I’m a human. I’m a woman. I’m a teenager. I’m a musician. I’m a student. I’m a sister, a daughter and a friend.”
Now I know if I ever really responded like that, their response would probably be, “No, really! What are you?” But, really, this is a really difficult question to answer because what I am or rather who I am involves so much more. Who I am is not… cannot be defined by checking black or white or any other box. Who I am is a complex amalgamation of my cultural influences, my experiences, my family, my friends, my beliefs and my interests. Some of these things change all the time. So for me to choose one of those boxes would be not only labeling myself but forcing me to identify with only one of my ethnicities. And that’s something I refuse to do because I identify with all my ethnicities. (And really it’s so true! Why would you forsake mother or father?) (Exactly!)
Yeah, and on a different note, in any typical family, siblings might look different and have different likes and dislikes. And I think in our family, we’re the same way. My sisters and I, we have differences; we have similarities. And I think that my two sisters, actually, they kind of favor each other a little more and I feel like I look a little bit different. So I think that our experiences as mixed children are different as well, especially my experience. I think, depending on where I go, I’m described as different ways. Like in some cultures, I’m described as the red-toned one. In other cultures or countries I’ve been to, they describe me as la morena or the darker one. But still in other cultures or societies I go to, I’m described as the light-skinned one. So there you go! I’m red, I’m dark, I’m light but still depending on where I’m at, my experiences are different than those of my sister… my sisters. And too, I really feel that because I look a little different than them, I would shudder to think that if that caste system, that racial segregation still existed to this day, what would happen with us? Would we be segregated from one another?
That’s something to think about. You know and if we’re not being judged by our skin or eye color, then we’re being judged by our hair. (Yeah!) And as you can plainly see, we’re curly girls and we’re very proud of it. And what do they say? “You don’t talk politics, you don’t talk religion and you don’t talk hair texture. (Right?) And titles like good hair versus bad hair is just unfair. We believe that all hair types and textures are beautiful and to be celebrated. In fact, a singer India Arie… she sings a song.
Oh yeah! Is that the one that goes something like this? “I am not my hair. I am not this skin. I am the soul that lives within.”
(Very true words.) Yeah! I couldn’t agree more. And a friend of mine got married to a man of another race and so they had a bi-racial daughter. And she inspired me to write this kind of lighthearted book geared towards tween… tween girls. You don’t even have to be mixed, just have curly hair to appreciate it. And this is an excerpt from that book,
I got into a fight one day, a rough and tumble with my hair.
I hadn’t combed it in two weeks so all would stop and stare.
My comb jumped in and tried to help but the fight just wasn’t fair.
It wrestled, it teased, it lost some teeth, got lost up in that hair.
The more I pried, the more I cried, the bigger it would grow.
I could not deny, from each side, it had turned into a fro.
And then I passed the mirror and I sucked my lip back in.
An idea began to gather and I grabbed some bobby pins.
My hands twirled and tucked those curls and, much to my surprise,
They calmly let me shift them, shape them into a design.
No longer were they rebellious. No nothing of the kind.
It was I who needed to see; it was I who had been blind
To the great beauty these curls so majestically possess.
Yes, with African-Cherokee-Choctaw-Iroquois-Jewish, I’ve been blessed.
So from that day forward, I pledged a pledge that with our hair or eyes or skin,
Never again would I define my heritage to fit in
With other girls
Who have no curls.
No, I’ll never feel chagrined.
They say the eyes, color aside, are the window to the soul.
So, too, this hair, curled everywhere, is gorgeous, free and bold!
(Woo! Love that bold) (Me, too!)
Well, I’m sure that my sisters agree with me that although as people with mixed heritages, we face so many difficulties but the positives definitely outweigh the negatives. We’ve been called names like Oreos, mutts. We’ve been even called mulatto, which is actually a Spanish term for a mixture between a donkey and a horse. So we’ve been called many names but thanks to our parents Rick and Sadarri Saskill and our grandparents, we truly have been able to see that each of us are a deliciously concocted, “special blend!”
A Goddess inspired story of the adversities faced and overcome by Archana’s family as they move form India to America. This is a story of identity, assimilation and race relations that ultimately honors different paths of healing and different religions. Overcoming health issues and life and death challenges, from Darkness to Light describes the embodiment of the Indian festival of Lights/Diwali that welcomes in the “new” in each and every one of us in a beautiful way. (more…)
In A Crack in the Wall a white man has an experience at a copy shop that causes him to examine the negative impact racial conditioning has had on him. He is disturbed when he realizes that he has been indifferent to the historical suffering of African Americans, and he becomes painfully aware of his subconscious denial and patronizing attitude towards them. (more…)
Images is a white man’s reflection about the powerful and debilitating impact of the disparaging imagery that has been historically used to shape the perception of African Americans as dangerous. While he realizes that his mistrust of African Americans was formed by racial conditioning since childhood, as an adult his conscience is burdened by the knowledge that he caused others pain when he displayed that conditioning in cross-racial interactions. He vows to make a change. (more…)
Why do you think Kathryn and Georgia chose to tell Phyllis about the things they had to teach their sons?
What might have caused Randa, the waitress in the story, to withdraw so suddenly after Phyllis promised that things would “get better”?
What does Phyllis mean when she asks, “Is this one of the elements of white privilege – having the option to know the truth and then forget it because it doesn’t apply to my life?” What are some other elements of white privilege?
What do you think happened in Randa’s mind or heart that allowed her to respond as she did to Phyllis’s apology?
Hi, my name is Phyllis Unterschuetz. And this is adapted from a story in my book, Longing: Stories of Racial Healing.
I can’t think of a finer way to spend my time than sitting around a cozy kitchen table, with my girlfriends. Drinking good coffee, and sharing bits of ourselves together, in that wonderfully intimate way that women have when we’re feeling safe with each other. And it was in just such a setting that I found myself late one October afternoon 1997 in New London, Connecticut. Sitting with me at the table were Catherine and Georgia. Funny, intense, passionate women, whose company I just couldn’t seem to get enough of. We were fairly new friends but we were having this sisterly feeling kind of wash over us, in great waves of laughter and companionship.
We’d been talking about our children and, kind of, sharing stories of parenting. And at one point, I noticed a definite shift in the energy of the conversation. And all of a sudden, one of the women, and then the other, also, started talking about these, these anguished decisions that they had to make as the mothers of black teenage boys. As they talked their sentences sped up and pretty soon they were, kind of, talking over one another and everything was, kind of, jumbled together. It was it was as if two different voices were coming out of two different mouths but they were really the same voice. They were saying the same things.
And I heard snatches. I remember, I remember hearing them say, “You know, they were just driving along. They weren’t doing anything wrong. They’re stopped just because they’re black. Really they weren’t doing anything wrong and all of a sudden somebody’s screaming at him through the window of their car. ‘Show me your license. Show me your registration.’ And they’re flustered. They don’t know what to do. And I have to teach my son how to move his hands so slowly so that they won’t think he’s reaching for a weapon. And I had to teach my son exactly what to do, what to say, how to look, which words he should use, and which words he should never, ever say. Otherwise he might be shot.”
And one of them said to me, “Can you imagine what that feels like. Having to teach your son those things?” You know, their faces had gotten kind of rigid and tough, as they spoke. As if any softness in such matters, even speaking them to me, could be deadly for their sons.
And me, I just sat there and tried to empathize. I tried to swallow my horror. I tried to stand in solidarity with them, you know, and say something like, “Yes, yes. I can see what you’re saying. I can relate to what you’re telling me.” But no, instead, this horror just rose up in my throat, acidic. And I wanted to purge it by screaming out my shock and my disbelief. I wanted to say, “Here? Seriously that happens here in New England?” What did I think, did I think? That it happens only in the south? Or did I truly, on some level think, it happens only on TV and in the movies?
I wanted to say, “Those sweet boys. How could that possibly happen to them?” But, you see, if I’d said anything like that, that would have just diminished their gift to me. And so I gave them back the only thing I had of equal value, which was my honesty. And I had to say, “No…No, I can’t imagine what that feels like.” And what I didn’t say was not only can’t I imagine it but I don’t have to imagine it, you see, because I’ll never have to teach my son those things.
Not quite three years later, in the summer of 2000, my husband and I were having dinner in a restaurant with our son, Eric. We were in Wilmette, Illinois and Eric was about 21 years old at the time, if I remember correctly. And we were having the greatest time with our waitress. Her name was Randa. Randa was African-American. She was probably in her mid-30s, I’m guessing, and she was just one of these people makes you feel like you’ve been friends forever, you know, just vibrant and connective. So, towards the end of our meal, Randa came over to our table and she was carrying the pot of coffee to pour us some more. And we started talking about our kids. I think she told me a story about her young daughter. And, you know, as she was talking and we’re sharing about parenting in these chaotic times, the tone of her conversation shifted.
I should have recognized that shift but I didn’t. And she got real serious and quiet and all of a sudden, she said, “You know, it’s not actually my daughter I’m worried about.” She said, “I have a teenage son and I am so worried about him. There’s so much he has to deal with out there,” and her face had just become, lost its animation, and its joy, and its brightness, and just become burdened and weighed down, and fearful looking.
And I thought, oh, I wanted to say something just to, just to reassure her, just to make her feel better. And I thought, I know what she’s feeling because I’ve raised a teenage son. I know how hard that is, watching them struggle into maturity. And I was thinkin’, my 21 year old, and I thinkin’ things got so much better as he got older. And so instead of taking her hand, which was what I initially wanted to do, I just gestured over to my son Eric, as evidence that I knew what I was talking about. And I looked at her earnestly and I said, “You know what? I just want to tell you that it gets better. It gets better the closer your son comes to adulthood, the better it’s going to get. The older he is, the easier it will be, I promise.”
And then everything changed. The light just went out of Randa’s eyes. Before there’d been something flowing, now this heavy veil fell between us. The light was gone. The warmth, the trust, all of that connection gone. She was gone. And in her place was this woman, standing rigidly with a pot of coffee and these blank eyes that just looked straight ahead And she just dropped our check on the table.
She said, “Yeah, whatever. If you say so,” and then she turned and walked away. And it was like I’d been slapped in the face. What happened? I just went over every word in my mind. I couldn’t imagine. Had I said something to upset her?
I started thinking through memories of conversations with other black women. Thinking maybe there I would find some clue as to what I’d said. And, you know, as soon as I did that, didn’t take but a minute and I was back in Connecticut sitting at the table with Catherine and Georgia and listening to them express, what, not their excitement for their sons to get older? But, but no. Their wish that their sons could stay young forever. Knowing that the older they got, the more danger they’d be in. Hearing their anguish as they talked about sending these precious young men out each day into a society that perceives black males as criminals. And then hearing again my own admission. “No. I don’t know what that feels like.”
So now, I knew what it was that had shattered the trust. I knew what I’d said because my promise, you see, was a fraud. Things were not necessarily going to get better for her son as he got older. And in fact, it was likely that they would get worse. It was likely that the closer he came to adulthood, the more frequently he would be perceived as dangerous and therefore the more danger he would be in.
And the thing is, the thing is, I knew this and I forgot. How is that possible to forget a truth like that? I ask myself, “Is this one of the elements of sneaky white privilege? Having the option to know something, to know the truth and then forget it because I think that it doesn’t apply to my life?” And because of my forgetting, any hopefulness that woman had felt, had been replaced by the inescapable reality that I was just one more ignorant white woman, who actually thought I knew what she faced in her life.
So, I was in there and I’m thinking what am I going to do? What am I going to do? And as soon as I said that, Catherine in Georgia came to my rescue once again. I could see and hear them, I tell you, as clearly as if they were sitting right at the table with me, finishing up their coffee. And they just looked at me, they just looked into my face, and they said, “Get up off your butt, girl, and do something.”
And I’m talking to them, these invisible women, like, and I’m saying, “I know. I know. I will. I will. Honest, I will but I don’t know what to do.”
And their voices came in a chorus, “Yes, you do. You do know.” And they were right. I did. I excuse myself from the table and I went to look for Randa. And I looked for her in the lobby, I looked for her all around the restaurant, I even looked in the smoking section in the back, which they had back in those days. I even went in the restroom and looked under the doors of the stalls trying, to find her and I couldn’t. And I was ready to go into the kitchen if I had to. And fortunately, I didn’t have to go that far because I looked up and Randa was coming out through the heavy kitchen doors and she was carrying a big tray covered with plates of food. And she just stopped when she saw me still and I, I stood in front of her just still myself waiting for some kind of inspiration.
And finally, I just opened my mouth and I just let the words fall out ineloquent and awkward. And I said to her, “I’m sorry. I just want to tell you that I’m sorry. I know things are not the same for your son as they are for mine. I know that things will only get harder for him as he gets older. And I knew that. I knew it already but I forgot. And I know how much I hurt you and I’m sorry.” And I couldn’t see any clue on her face about how she felt and she just looked at me for a really long time. And then she turned and, you know, I thought she was just going to walk away, which wouldn’t have surprised me, really, but she didn’t walk away.
She set her tray down on a table and she turned back to me. And then she reached out her arms and she took me in her arms. She took me and she held me. And we hugged each other really tightly for several minutes. And then all of a sudden, in that hug, she put her head down on my shoulder and she started to weep. And I tell you, I don’t know how long we stood in that embrace but we were there. We were consoling, rocking, weeping, together. Each of us giving and taking comfort at the same time. And all the activities of the restaurant bustled unheeded around us. And when her tears were finally spent, she stepped back and looked at me. And she managed a small smile and she said, “You know it is going to be OK.” She said, “With you and me, people like us, working together with the help of God. It’ll be OK. We’ll do it with His help.”
Now, I just dumbly nodded my agreement. I couldn’t speak. I don’t remember who looked away first. I don’t remember how we parted. I don’t remember how I got out the door and into the car. I just remember, the rocking, and the weeping, and the consoling, and feeling that that web of connection being rewoven as we stood there together. And the only thought in my mind, the only clear thought I had at that moment, was there’s a different promise I need to make. And this is the promise. That for the rest of my life I will work for unity. I will work for healing. I will work for justice. That is a promise I can make and that is a promise that with the help of God I can keep.
In the early 1960s, at a time when the hierarchy of race was evident in much of the country, a Black student feels relief to encounter a White teacher who operates without apparent bias. However, as the school year progresses, the student discovers that, in spite of her kind heart, his teacher unknowingly perpetuates White superiority by unselfconsciously promoting cultural and social standards that are rooted in “White” cultural and social norms; norms that might have worked for her, but not for everyone. It’s a lesson that is even more valuable for today’s “colorblind”, “post-racial” society.
One of the major points of this story is that in the United States “Whiteness” acts as an invisible, unspoken, socially unacknowledged set of cultural, political, educational, etc. standards by which we all are forced to live. Since those standards aren’t talked about, they are perceived to constitute a neutral, normal, and (if you are White) benign quality of life. As the story relates, that doesn’t work for everyone.
Try this: If you self-identify or are sociallyidentified as “White” – Over the next day, without forcing the issue, try to make a mental note of how many “White” images you see versus images of everyone else. Look for things like “White” mannequins in stores, “White” people on product labels, images of “White” people in books and magazines, on medical charts and TV shows, in ads on billboards and buses. Before hearing the author’s story, were you ever self-conscious of those things?
To read and do: Roger Bannister is credited with being the first man to run a mile in under four minutes. Matthew Henson is purported to be the first man to reach the summit of the North Pole. Read a book or a few of the numerous online accounts of each of these men’s lives. Why do you suppose absolutelynone of the literature on Bannister ever calls him the first “White” man to run a sub four-minute mile? In contrast, why do you suppose all of the literature on Henson calls him the first “Black” (or African-American) man to reach the North Pole?
Did you know? . . . The first woman in space (1963) was Russian Cosmonaut, Valentina Tereshkova. Twenty years later, the first American woman in space was Sally Ride. Consult a variety of sources and read their stories . . . Notice that there is absolutely no mention in any of their histories about them being “White”. The first Black woman in space was Mae Jemison in 1992. The first Latina in space, in 1993, was Ellen Ochoa. The first Japanese woman in space was Chiaki Mukai in 1994. Consult a variety of sources and read about them. Notice that every single account of their stories mentions their “race”. To what do you ascribe these different treatments?
The Right Hand of Privilege by Steven Jones, PHD. jonesandassociatesconsulting.com. Jones & Associates Consulting, Inc.
Privilege Revealed: How Invisible Preference Undermines America by Stephanie M. Wildman (Introduction, Chapter 1 “Making Systems of Privilege Visible”, and Chapter 7 “The Quest for Justice: The Rule of Law and Invisible systems of Privilege”
Understanding White Privilege from the Teaching/Learning Social Justice series (Chapter 2 “What’s In It For Us: Why We Would Explore What it Means to be White”)
Anti-Bias Curriculum: Tools for Empowering Young Children by Louise Derman Sparks and the A.B.C. Task Force
Beyond Heroes and Holidays: A Practical Guide to K – 12 Anti-Racist, Multicultural Education and Staff Development by Lee, Mankart, and Okazawa-Rey
Eight Habits of the Heart by Taulbert Clifton
African American/Black History
Education and Life Lessons
Family and Childhood
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Hi, my name is La’Ron Williams and I want to share with you just a tiny, little piece of a much larger story that I wrote about 12 years ago. It was a story examining the role that race played in shaping the structure of the community in which I lived. The original story is about 55 minutes long but this is, like I said, just a tiny, little piece so I hope you’ll stay with me through the whole thing.
A long, long time ago, way back when I was growing up, there was a story that I used to hear over and over and over again about the way that America thought of itself. Now, it didn’t come as a straight-out narrative. It came to me in tiny, little snippets and you’ll probably recognize some of these. Things like, “land of the free and home of the brave,” or “with liberty and justice for all,” or “we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.” That kind of thing. And taken in the aggregate, taken together, they constitute a kind of a narrative that says that this country is free and very equal and equitable place. And so, I grew up with the notion that that it should be like that.
But when I was a boy, way back when I was born in 1951. Jim Crow segregation was still the law. It was very, very obvious and very, very thorough in some places like Georgia where my father was from. And in some places like Flint where I was from, Flint, Michigan, it was not so obvious. Not so brutal, not so open but it was there, because it was everywhere. It was all over the country. So, I’m one of those people who remembers drinking from the segregated drinking fountain, for example, or having to sit in the balcony of the segregated movie theater, or having to swim on one side of the segregated swimming pool. And I, especially, remember, one time when my family took a trip to Washington D.C. and we weren’t allowed to eat in a restaurant. We were greeted at the door by a man who simply, very matter of factly, told us that we couldn’t eat there because they didn’t “serve Negroes.” And I remember my brother, as we walked away, said, “That’s okay, because we don’t eat them.”
I didn’t read about those things in books. I remember those things. They constitute a part of my upbringing, a part of my lived experience. And you may notice that my lived experience didn’t match the stories that I was told about the way this country was. And so, what that meant was, that, that I was kind of like I was two people. There was the person who really, really wanted to be free and equal and to believe the stories I was being told. And there was the person who knew that it was a lie. And these guys didn’t always trade places. I mean, sometimes I would be both of those guys at the same time.
Well, the fall of 1959 was when I went into third grade and my teacher that year was a woman named Mrs. Paris. Now that’s not her real name but for story purposes, Mrs. Paris was my third-grade teacher. And at the school that I went to, most of the teachers were black. Most of the students were black. It was, it was a largely African-American school and Mrs. Paris was the first white teacher that I had ever had. So, when I walked in the door, I felt a sense of trepidation. I mean, ’cause, because I didn’t know what she might be like. She might be like that guy who told us we couldn’t eat in the restaurant. So, I was ready for anything but my heart was also open because I was two people and one of them wanted to believe that things could be fair.
Well, as the year went on, I learned that Mrs. Paris really was a pretty good teacher. She taught us a lot of things and she always had a smile on her face and I like that piece of it. And I love the fact that she, she loved to sing. She was always singing songs in class. She taught us long division. She taught us how to say the Pledge of Allegiance, every, single day. She was a very loving and kind teacher who never, ever, ever gave up on any of her students, even those students that were considered slow. She would take special time with them to make sure they caught on with all the lessons.
Well, now, there was one time when the entire class was working on painting, a huge banner mural. And Mrs. Paris had taped this kind of really thick butcher paper up all around, all the walls of the room. And each student was assigned a part of the butcher paper to draw on. And so, we had to draw our part of the painting before we started painting. Now, I was a pretty good artist and so I finished my part of the banner before anybody else. So, Mrs. Paris came over and she gave me a number of different cups of paint that she had mixed up beforehand. And she’d labeled all of these cups.
So, I picked up one of the cups of paint and I started to paint one of the people in my portion of the mural but I didn’t get very far because one of my few white classmates standing right next to me, suddenly became, like, super exasperated. She put her hands on her hips, (disapproving breathing), and she’s going like this, (exasperated look), and only in a way that only a 8 year old kid can do. And I thought she was out of her mind. What’s going on with you? What are you doing? And, and she looked at me and she says, “You’re not supposed to use brown to color history people.”
I had no idea what she meant. I just looked at her and I started to say something. But before I could say anything. She called the teacher over. She said, “Mrs. Paris, he’s using the wrong color.”
I can almost hear all the heads turn of all my fellow students as they looked to watch Mrs. Paris walk over. Mrs. Paris walked over, she reached down, and she took the cup of paint that I’ve been using. She picked up another cup of paint and just handed it to me. And then she walked away without saying a word. So, I took a cup of pain and I turned it around and I looked at it and the label said, “flesh.” Now, I mean, it’s not like I didn’t know what flesh colored paint was. I had used flesh colored paints and flesh colored crayons hundreds of times before that. I mean, I didn’t mind using them. I knew it wasn’t the color of my flesh but it was the color of a lot of people. It was the color of Mrs. Paris, basically, and my classmates, and people that I admired on TV, like the whole cast of “Father Knows Best” and “Ozzie and Harriet” and I didn’t mind using it. It’s, it’s just that this time, with this teacher, for the first time, I became aware of how bad I felt not to use that color.
Well, as the year progressed, there were a lot of incidents like that. I mean, times when Mrs. Paris would be talking about something and my white classmates seemed to know what she meant even in advance. Times when we would sing songs from our school songbook and all the white students seemed to know all the words in advance. I mean, at home I sang songs by The Drifters and the Shirelles and pop tunes like that. And sometimes spiritual songs and gospel tunes. And I knew all those words by heart and half of them I still know. But somehow, none of those stories or songs ever seemed to appear in my school books. I mean, it’s not that I was upset that I didn’t know the school stuff sometimes. It’s just that for the first time, with this teacher, I became aware of how bad I felt that they did know it.
I didn’t have the words to describe it back then but I know now that, without meaning to, without even trying to, Mrs. Paris was teaching her black students to feel ashamed of the way that they did things. I mean, she was a good teacher and there was no malice in her heart. But she was teaching us to be ashamed. Just by using the school books and the school curriculum in the way that it was intended, she was teaching her black students shame. But there was something else that was going on too. Because at the same time that we were learning shame, she was teaching a lesson to the white students. She was teaching them superiority. Only none of us thought of it that way. I didn’t. Mrs. Paris didn’t. My classmates didn’t. It had been going on all our lives. But to them, to me, to her, to all of us, it was just normal, just standard, just the way it was, kind of like TV, a kind of an official story.
It was because of TV, it was because of shows like, “Father Knows Best,” that I knew what the suburbs looked like. It was because of programs like, “The Lone Ranger” that I knew what Indians, “How!” talked like. TV and Mrs. Paris and the movies and all kinds of things, the school books, gave me a kind of standard that was rooted in white culture, rooted in a white European way of thinking about things. But without naming it, without even talking about it, it was just considered standard. But in a way, I was lucky because when it came to what Mrs. Paris and the movies and the books and things had to say about being African-American, I knew that it didn’t even come close to matching the reality that I was living.
But what if I had been one of my white classmates? What if that paint that Mrs. Paris mixed up, at least came close to matching the color that I was? What if a Johnson’s Band-Aid didn’t stand out like a glaring beacon of mis-coloration whenever I stuck it, whenever I stuck it on my arm? What if everything around me told me that I was the standard, that I was just normal, just the way things should be? And what if everything around me reinforced that notion? What if I lived in a community where practically everybody looked like me and I never even heard a different point of view?
You know, crayon manufacturers no longer make a crayon that they call flesh but there are pantyhose that are called “nude.” And the color of the nude pantyhose is the same color that the flesh colored crayon used to be. I wonder whose nude are they talking about?
There, there’s also a color of makeup that’s called blush. It’s the same color that the flesh colored crayon used to be only it’s a little bit redder. And there’s a color of makeup that’s called suntan. It’s the same color that the flesh colored crayon used to be only it’s a little bit brown there. So, I’m left to think, in what ways is the flesh colored crayon is still with us? In what ways do you notice that we still live surrounded by flesh colored crayons?
A short story told by
Its hard not to picture the stereotypes associated with terms like “redneck” or “hillbilly.” These stereotypes are often the butt of many jokes. But like any stereotype, these are often labels unfairly placed on people. In his story, Searching for My Appalachia: A Modern Jack Tale, Storyteller Kevin Cordi takes a closer look at his mountain roots thanks to a chance encounter with a modern day “redneck.”
Having spent time in the mountains of West Virgina as a child, Cordi is no stranger to the Appalachian tales of a silly hillbilly, Jack, who sealed up the northwest winds or climbed a beanstalk in search of his fortune. To Cordi, being called a hillbilly simply meant holes in your overalls. But when he shares this with his mother she states that he shouldn’t make fun of people or let what people call him determine his future. It is not until years later when he moves away and gains employment as a traveling salesman that Cordi learns who he really is and can take pride in his mountain heritage.
In this chance encounter, Cordi meets someone others classify a “redneck.” Puzzled by the reluctance and fear of others to connect with the so-called “redneck,” Cordi knocks on the door and begins a short conversation with a very pleasant man named Jack. Jack explains to Cordi about the nature of the term redneck and states, “When did dirt and hard work become something bad?” It is then that Cordi suddenly realizes that stereotypes exist because it is easier to be afraid of someone “different” rather than to see them for who they really are. And in that moment, Cordi realizes that he’s now found his fortune and longs to go back home.
This touching story demonstrates that while stereotypes may be part of society, we must be ready and willing to peel back their layers to get to know the real person who is often hidden behind them.
Watch this revealing story that shows that people are so much more than labels:
See many other short free videos like this
one on the Showcase Page of this site. .
A short story told by
Who amongst us has not ached to fit in with our peers, to belong? Acceptance and rejection are universal experiences for everyone. We all long to connect with others and try desperately to avoid the chill of being rebuffed. In “School Spirit,” Erica Lann-Clark recounts her personal story of rising to the occasion when she feels the sting of rejection that so often defines adolescent angst.
Setting the stage for viewers, Ms. Lann-Clark shares a bit of her Jewish background proudly. We identify with her need for peer acceptance, nod along as we recognize the pain of humiliation when she is snubbed, and celebrate with her as she puts words into actions and delivers a powerful message of leadership.
May we all show our school spirit by wanting the best for our world, and not settling for the status quo. Rise to the occasion, and let your voice be heard.
Watch this touching story that encourages a more unified society:
See many other short free videos like this
one on the Showcase Page of this site. .
Charlotte Blake Alston and colleague, Steve Tunick, chaperone 12 African and Jewish American teenagers who seek common ground through a cultural immersion abroad in Senegal in Africa. An unanticipated diversion led the group to an encampment of recently expelled or escaped indigenous Mauritanians. Were Charlotte and Steve making a big mistake allowing the students to witness and be among poor, desperate people at such a low and vulnerable moment of their lives? Would the presence of Americans in the refugee camp contribute to increasing tensions between Senegal and its slave-holding northern neighbor, Mauritania? Adults and students alike receive a profound lesson about our common humanity from a group of children whom they had perceived to be the least likely to offer insight. (more…)
Noa grew up in Jerusalem, where America was the most exotic place other than Mars. In the 5th grade, Noa’s family left their home in Israel. She arrived in America speaking very little English. But miracles do happen… (more…)
Antonio explores the challenges and joys of trying to raise a bilingual child. As anxious new parents, Antonio and his wife ask, “Are two languages better than one?” and find humor along the way. (more…)
Susan O’Halloran attends a Chicago Memorial service in November of 2011 for children who have died through violence. Being at the Memorial sparks a high school memory for Susan of going to a youth conference in 1965 and meeting Cecil, an African American teenager, who became Sue’s friend. One evening, in 1967, Sue receives a phone call that changes everything.
Being at a Chicago Memorial service in November of 2011 for children who have died through gun violence sparks memories for Susan O’Halloran of people she has lost. At the end of the service, the congregation moves into the streets to plead for peace as everyone asks the continuing questions: Will the violent deaths of young lives end? When? And what is our part in ending violence?
What are the causes of violent deaths in America? People are always responsible for their own actions, but how does America’s legacy of segregation and discrimination play into violence?
Are you for more restrictions on guns? More policing? How would greater educational and job opportunities affect violence?
If you could be Mayor of a large U.S. city, what would you do to curb violence?
Do you believe as Sue says that “these are all our children”? Why would someone in one part of a town be concerned with what happens in another part? How are we connected to one another? How does violence affect even the more “peaceful” parts of town?
Sue remembers that she was directly touched by violence. What affect has a young person’s death had on you?
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander and Cornell West
Youth Violence: Theory, Prevention and Intervention by Kathryn Seifert, PhD
African American/Black History
Family and Childhood
First Nations/Native Americans
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
Hi, I’m Susan O’Halloran. Do you ever watch the news sometimes and you’re like, enough already! But then every so often, something happens, not things that are just happening to other people anymore. I want to share a story with you about a memorial service I went to in Chicago, November 2011. And a memory was triggered by that memorial, something that had happened long, long ago.
The first thing I noticed was the checkmarks. They had asked us to sign in with our name and then to check “yes” if we had lost a family member or close friend to violence. When I arrived, the memorial service had already begun. I made the long trek from my Evanston, Illinois home, down Lakeshore Dr, across the Dan Ryan Expressway, to the Southside of Chicago and the gothic style church of St. Sabinas. When I walked into that vestibule I heard an orchestra playing inside and I walked up to the sign-in book and I went to add my name. I couldn’t check the box. I was fortunate, my life hadn’t been touched by that kind of tragedy. But what I saw was hundreds of checkmarks already made. Each check said, “Yes, I’ve lost a loved one to violence.” Well, an usher came up to me, an African-American woman with a wide smile, wearing a black pillbox hat, a black suit, white gloves. She handed me a program, an unlit candle, and directed me to follow her. She walked me past rows of mourners and them she offered me a seat at the end of a pew. I was there. I was at the Urban Dolorosa memorial. Urban Dolorosa means “the city of sorrow,” and our city was deep in sorrow.
In those previous three school years, from September 2008 to August 2011, four thousand children had been shot in Chicago. Two hundred sixty-three kids were dead because of violence. Four thousand shot and 263 dead. Congregations of all faiths and other non-profits had gathered together to form Urban Dolorosa to say we had to stop the denial, the ignorance, the indifference, the hopelessness. They were calling for a comprehensive, coordinated plan to end the blood bath.
Now, I walked in there expecting I would hear community leaders rage about, you know, how decades of injustice and marginalizing whole communities, was a recipe for violence. I thought they would remind us that the very victims of the carnage are the people who are getting blamed. I thought I’d hear politicians who would make speeches about how unemployment, inferior education, and pouring resources into youth and community development, this would benefit all of us. But that’s not what I had walked into at all. No, instead, this memorial was a, kind of, sacred musical cane. A mix of opera and choral music, sung in English and Spanish with strains of the blues and African-American spirituals, punctuated by a poetic libretto with an art installation and candlelight and photographs projected images of those left behind. Tear stained faces wide in disbelief or pinched tight in pain. Pictures of people holding each other up – their grief too much to bear alone. My surprise of what this memorial was, quickly melted into a feeling that, yes, this was exactly right. This was how to remember children who would never grow up to be young men and young women.
I remember a poem I read in college, it stayed with me all these years, by the poet Bill Knott; just three simple lines.
The only response to a child’s grave is to lie down before it and play dead
And then youth performers walked the aisles and took photographs from people. Photographs of their slain loved ones. And they brought those photographs to the altar and began to build this tall sculpture of smiling children’s faces – a mound of grief growing before us. And then they scattered all about as the names were read. “Rahim Washington, Eva Henry, Jose Corona…” Each name pierced the air!
And those youth performers, one of them came right by me. A 16-year-old girl with a round face, a very solemn face, so close her hand was brushing my shoulder and she lit her candle and she leaned over and lit mine and then gestured with her head for me to light the candle, the man beside me. And all of a sudden, candlelight was swimming up and down the pews of St. Sabinas as more names were read. “Alanzo Jones, Kabauro Ottowani, Arianna Gibson…” It was as if I could hear a drumbeat underscoring every name, every life. And then, this teenager blew out her flame, and poof, poof, poof, all of the sanctuary, flames gone, blown out. And she handed me her extinguished candle and left. It took me a moment to look into the aisle beside me and see her shoes were still there. All up and down the aisles of St. Sabinas. No more teens, just their empty shoes. My heart collapsed, gave way to the sound of a beating drum, and the memory flooded in.
Nineteen sixty-five. The first time I saw him, he was playing the drums or I should say an upside-down waste basket. I had met Cecil 46 years before. We were both 15 years old and we were at the YCS regional conference. YCS. Young Christian Students. I had met, I had joined the local group at my school that year and I decided to go to the regional conference. It was held at St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Indiana just about an hour and a half outside of Chicago. Oh, it was a whole week at the end of summer. Seminars and speakers and panel discussions. It was such great fun. And most of all it meant friendships with kids from all over the city and neighboring states. And since things were completely segregated in the 1960s, that meant for most of us it would be our first interracial experience.
Now the night I met Cecil, we girls decided to sneak out of our dorm. We were going to sneak out of our dorm and go to the boys’ dorm after curfew. For someone like me who rarely broke the rules, this was high adventure. We dressed in dark turtlenecks and long pants. I could almost hear the theme music from the I Spy TV show. Wah wah wah wah. We actually crawled on our bellies, like, pulled ourselves with our elbows across this long empty field that separated us from the boys. And when we got to the boys’ dorm, those boys were in ecstasy… And not at all interested in us. Cecil, of slight build and wearing glasses and his friend tall, thin Joe, had instructed the other boys, who were white, and how to turn their metal wastebaskets into drums. And they’d given them the steady pulse that most of the boys could handle. And then Cecil and Joe, they played on top of their beat. Now Joe was like the master of ceremonies. He’d tipped back in his chair and drum between his legs and the call out to the boys and encourage them. “That’s right. You’re doing it. That’s right. That’s right.” Master of ceremonies.
Cecil was the serious one. He would cock his head to one side always an ear down to the drum. Monitoring if the intent and effect were one in the same. His rhythm seemed to come from the base of his spine, crawl up his back, push his arms from behind so fast that his hands would blur. These boys looked so blissed out, their faces seemed to say, “Yes. What you’re playing goes with what I’m playing, goes with what he’s playing. Yes, yes, yes. We’re in this together. Yes.”
Well, after that regional conference, at the end of the week. We had small group discussions throughout the week. Oh, Cecil was in my group so I saw him every day. And we talked about group leadership and school spirit and racial stereotyping. And sometimes after that seminar Cecil and I just weren’t done; we had to keep talking, piggybacking off of each other’s ideas. We walked the cinder running track back behind the classrooms.
Cecil’d say things like, “They should have a UN for kids!” And I go, “Yeah!” I’d agree. “Yeah! I wish we could meet kids from China and Africa and France!” Having just met kids from the other side of the city, the other side of the color line, we were ready to take on the world. And then by the end of that week was Friday night dance. Now in my neighborhood the thought of dancing with a boy who was black, it would have been unheard of. An impossibility, but by the end of the week, hey, Cecil was my pal. Of course, I would dance with Cecil.
And when Cecil came towards me. He was shorter than me. He looked tall and elegant. And he took my hand like it was a jewel. And he walked me out to an empty space on the dance floor and we began to slow dance. Now in my neighborhood, slow dancing meant the boys and girls would fall on each other and kind of move sideways, swaying like zombies. But with Cecil slow dancing meant walking coolly, purposefully, covering that dance floor three, four times with space between your bodies to twist and dip. Cecil would duck under my arm, he would twirl me in light circles. He would graze his hand across my waist as he circled me. I looked great just standing there.
Well, after that regional conference, I joined citywide YCS. And so did Cecil. We had meetings. We had more dances. We had picnics at the lakefront. We had press conferences to announce our newest initiatives but, most of all, what we did was plan study days, kind of like the regional conference. We bring kids together from all over the city and we would study, look at some kind of social justice issue. And once Cecil and I co-chaired a study day examining the black power movement. Ah, the day was exciting and contentious and scary and thrilling. We got people thinking and some people really upset and angry. And I just remember afterwards sharing a Coke with Cecil and the two of us sitting there saying, “We did it! We did it!” Though, I don’t think either of us quite knew what we had done.
I remember that last leadership meeting in 1967, we were juniors in high school. It was the last meeting that Cecil attended. One of our adult mentors suggested an icebreaker for the beginning of the meeting. He said, “Why don’t you go ‘round and everybody say how they want to be remembered. You tell us what you would want written on your gravestone.”
Well, Katie went first and she said, “I want my gravestone to say she was alive.” And I went next and I joked I want my gravestone to say she IS alive. And everybody started laughing. And then Cecil said. Cecil said. Cecil said, “What?” See, he’s after me and I thought this mixture of pride and self-consciousness because I made everybody laugh so I don’t remember what Cecil said. I mean he was the good listener not me. What did Cecil want on his gravestone. It became so important to remember.
The first thing we heard was that he’d been shot. I stayed on the phone with YCS friends long into the night. It was as if we held a phone vigil. Maybe we could pull him through. Cecil and Joe had been to a dance in their neighborhood that night and they were walking home and this other kid, older a little bit. They didn’t know him. Walked up to them and said, “Where are you from?” And Cecil, just as any good, Catholic, Chicago kid would, he answered, his parish, Sacred Heart. “BOOM!” Just like that. The kid took out a gun and shot him. Cecil’s chest lay open to the moonless sky. We didn’t know many details, we just heard that Joe didn’t know what to do. I mean stay with this friend or go run for help. There were no cell phones back then. And I just keep picturing Joe with Cecil, then running to get help and then like a film thrown into reverse, running back. And then, “No, no! We should get help.” And running, just not knowing what to do.
I’d never been to the wake of a young person, a teenager, somebody my age. When we got to the funeral home, women with hats and powdery cheeks and older women smelling of perfume were milling about. And I was in grief before I even walked into that main room because I realized that Cecil had grown up much as I did. Leaned into the body of mothers and aunties and grandmas. The soft flesh of women’s arms wrapped around him, falling asleep in the heat of their bodies. And I knew with surety that the dividing line, that color line, in our city separated me not only from my black friends but from the familiness of my black friends. And then I saw, uh, Joe and as high as his face could lift and a smile was how far it fell. His skin hung loose over his jaw. “Thanks for coming,” he said. Still the master of ceremonies, we YCS kids, white, black and brown walked to the casket together.
We stared at Cecil’s body of brackish dust. Part death, part Cecil, still. He looked like a jewel floating on the white, pleated linen below him. He looked so young, like a child. Way too young to be dead. I saw that dead people looked a lot like. White people may be a little more pasty, chalky, white. Black people may be more ashy gray. But both as far away as the deepest stone at the bottom of Lake Michigan.
The adults, they knew the manners of death. They held out holy cards to people. They, they prayed their Hail Marys and Our Fathers. But we kids were lucky, we were young, we didn’t have to say things like, “Oh, he looks good.” No, we just stood there silent…shattered. Maybe it was me, I don’t know, who broke first. I don’t know who fell on me and who I fell where my body began or where it ended. I just know the room melted away as we cradled each other in front of Cecil McClure’s casket.
It’s as if we just wanted to crawl into each other’s comfort. To hold each other as we felt the truth of it. Our friend is dead. Our friend dead. Our friend is dead. The truth beat against our hearts like a drum.
“Terence Hollands, Delvonta Porter, Devon Varner…” the reading, the memorial reading of the names continues. Four thousand children shot, 263 children dead. The only response to a child’s grave is to lie down before it and play dead. The same youth performers came out into the sanctuary again. My same teen, my sentinel, at my side, appeared and she gestured for me to stand up. And all over the sanctuary, the teens were leading us outside for a profession, procession, a procession through our neighborhood to reclaim our streets. To put an end to violence.
A musician, one of the violinists, led that procession. Playing a song, now a refrain, we had heard often in the service, so everybody began to sing. “Pour out your heart like water for the lives of our children. Let justice roll like an ever-flowing stream.” We turned a corner and television cameras appeared. It felt like an obstruction, kind of obscene. You know, we’ve been in the quiet of the sanctuary, then the quiet of the night and then, boom, these bright white lights. Like a self-conscious kind of spectacle. But also, you know, lending a kind of layer extra layer of importance to the ritual. I mean we did want people to know. To know so that maybe we could believe that the denial was over. People were coming together because it was in our power to change things.
When their procession was over, I hugged my teen goodbye. I thanked her. And I went to walk to the parking lot to get my car but I thought, “No, I’ll go in the church and a look. I’ll just see.” I went into the church and I found it. The sign-in book was still there. I found my name and I checked yes. Yes, I had lost a loved one to violence. Yes, I will work for peace. Have to commit to peace. For all the children still living, growing and dreaming in every neighborhood across this nation.
Can you see antennas on this middle aged white woman? “Aliens” (the word used for people from other countries) come from places other than Mars. During the McCarthy witch-hunts (a period of anti-communism intensity), the Cold War and the Space Race, we all learned to “blend” our ethnic identities.
Why was Yvonne’s family able to legally become naturalized citizens while other people came to the U.S. as “illegals”?
How old do you think Yvonne needed to be before she understood what it meant to become a U.S. citizen?
The Irish in America by Michael Coffey
Family and Childhood
Living and Traveling Abroad
Hi, my name is Yvonne. And I’m seven years old and the Pittsburgh Federal Building reaches right up to the sky, for real! There are bars on the windows. There may be daffodils blooming on the lawn but the entrance looms like a great, big mouth ready to swallow us up. Awe…it looks an awful lot like the wicked fortress of the Wicked Witch of the West. But…really… it’s the Pittsburgh Federal Building and this is the Steel City, not the Emerald City of Oz.
“Come on in. Come along,” says Mummy. “Let’s go.” So we go inside. And we’re going inside the Federal Building. Now, you see, I may be seven years old but I know what a federal building is. We have a federal building in our own little town in Pennsylvania. We go there, my dad and I, to mail packages back home to Ireland. And our whole family goes there all together once a year for something special. We go and we stand right up to the counter and then we hold our hands up, and out loud, we say the alien promise. And then we sign our names. Mine’s in block cursive. And all the other people buying stamps, they’re staring at us because we’re aliens. Well, that night we go home and watch TV and on the TV, there are the McCarthy Witch Trials. And on that show, there are people who…who are getting yelled at and jailed because they’re aliens.
Well, I go to the mirror afterwards and I’m looking through my black hair for my antennae. Because aliens have antenna. I know that because I watch TV. I watched Chiller Science Fiction Theater. And aliens have antennae, Martians have antennae. So I must have antennae. The only time I see aliens is on TV because there are no other aliens in my town. Everybody else is a real American. But, you know, I don’t think antennae can come out. They’re kind of stuck in there. Because my… my teacher, Sister Camella, she likes to hit me on the head with the big, thick Geography book. She does that whenever I accidentally use the language that we speak at home, Gaelic Irish. She says, “Blend! Why don’t you blend? Why don’t you speak like your friend, Star? She’s a real American! But you, you’re always going to be just alien!” Star is a real American. She speaks nicely. And she has blonde hair and blue eyes. And she doesn’t have to go down to the post office. And she doesn’t cook funny food. That’s what my friends say when they come over.
But anyway, so this is a special day! (I don’t want to think about that.) This is a special day. This is the day I’m gonna be naturalized. I didn’t know I wasn’t natural but now I know. It’s going to be ok, ’cause today, I’m going to be naturalized. So… I’ve been practicing my cursive.
And now Daddy and Mummy and my big sister and I are sitting in a bench right beside these big wooden doors. One after another, our names are called in. They go in separately because Daddy, Daddy thinks that… if Ireland declares war on the United States we’re gonna each need our own papers so we don’t get deported. Tá mé na hÉireann agus tá mé Meiriceánach. I’m Irish and I’m American. Then they called my name. And there are these black pants and a blue shirt and a yellow badge and a strange face. And my mum pushes me. “Go on, go on.” I can’t believe that my mum is telling me to go with this stranger after she’s always going on about never going with strangers. And now she’s making me go off into this big scary building with this scary man that I’ve never seen before! And he smells bad! We’re walking through those doors and we’re in a courtroom. Only… only it’s not like the courtroom one on the TV show Perry Mason. It’s got all the benches. But this one’s dark and empty. And my patent leather shoes are going, “whap, whap, whap,” as I go down the aisle following that stranger. We get to the end, he gives me a little push. And in front of me there’s this big, black tower of wood…I don’t want to go. He says, “Go to the Judge’s Bench.” …I don’t say it but I’m, like, that’s not a bench, that’s not a seat, that’s not a desk. That’s a tower! He gives me another push and I get a little further and I see there are little steps going up the side. So, ok, I go up the steps. And then it turns a corner and now I’m surrounded by black wood. Heavy, thick, black wood. I am all alone. And the black wood just gets closer and closer and the air is getting squeezed out. And I’m alone in this big black tower and then I hear, “Hey!” And there’s a man, an old man’s face kind of poking out around the corner. Is it the wizard? Or the judge? He motions to come closer. So, he says, “Don’t worry. Don’t worry. I’m sure you remember the answers.”
And he says, “Who’s the president of the United States?”
I think to myself, “Oh my gosh, everybody knows that it’s the man with the shiny head.” But I say, like a lady, I say, “General Eisenhower.”
And he says, “Who discovered America?”
And I say, “Christopher Columbus but it was named after the matchmaker, Amerigo Vespucci.”
And then he says, “Alright, this is a tricky one but you look like a smart little girl, how many states are there?”
“Forty-nine, Alaska just got in.”
“Congratulations,” he says. “You are now an American citizen. You may sign the book and repeat after me.”
And I hold my hand up like him, and just like you probably remember, I say, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America…” I sign my name in big round cursive letters. Now, I’m an American, a real American and I’m Irish too!
As Franco-Americans from Quebec assimilated into the larger Anglo culture in the United States, they became, as a result of that effort, more “invisible.” The story that Michael tells, as Jean-Paul Boisvert, shows a couple’s resistance to that “invisibility.” (more…)
The true story of a Vietnamese teenager who makes it to America after a harrowing boat journey and refugee camp. At a commemorative storytelling event honoring Vietnamese Americans, Sue witnesses the transformative power of story as this young man shares his American immigrant story. The community of listeners that storytelling creates makes a new country feel like home. (more…)
At age 16, in 1855, Jane’s great-grandfather sailed from Long Island, N.Y. around the Horn to San Francisco where he was stranded! He took a job with Wells Fargo as a treasure agent in the Sacramento-Shasta Mining District…the home of the Shasta Indian Nation. In 1860 he rode the first leg east for the Pony Express. He was also a member of San Francisco’s Vigilance Committee, a group of 6000 men, committed to establishing “law and order.” How do we seek understanding of both the pride and the discomfort our ancestor’s stories? (more…)
Storyteller, Connie Regan-Blake, was invited to come to Uganda by “Bead For Life”(www.beadforlife.org), an NGO helping women lift themselves out of extreme poverty. Many of them are displaced people from the horrors and atrocities of civil war in northern Uganda and are dealing with the ravages of AIDS. Connie was welcomed into their homes and hearts as if she was family and she listened to their profound and transformative stories. This is Namakasa Rose’s story. (more…)
Stories about our ancestors help us understand who we are. Encountering troubling revelations about her forebears and their Indian neighbors in colonial New England, Jo asks what it means to tell – and live with – her whole, complex history. (more…)
Carol believes this statement: “To build a bridge from one culture into another and make pluralism a cause for celebration, we have to have one foot firmly planted in who we are.” However, in exploring her Polish and Scottish roots, Carol wonders if she’s really been living what she teaches.
What is a WASP and why is that word part of American history?
Why are many students who are identified as “white” unaware of their ethnic heritages? It seems from the story that there is a hierarchy of “whiteness;” is this accurate in your experience?
The storyteller accepted many last names in the story – her original name, her father’s name-switch, her husband’s name. Finally, she went back to what name and why? Why is so much consideration given to a name?
Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice by Paul Kivel
Education and Life Lessons
Family and Childhood
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
Hi, there. I’m Carol Birch. And you know I think I must’ve been 27, 28 years old before a woman said to me, “I have no idea why people are ashamed of being Polish. It’s such a rich culture.” And I didn’t know that I was ashamed of being Polish but I certainly never claimed that I was Polish. I never advertised that I was Polish.
My father was born in 1905. His name was Edmond Paul Buczkowski, B-U-C-Z-K-O-W-S-K-I. And when he went out as a young man to look for work, the only thing he found were signs in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania that said, “Polish need not apply.” So, he changed our name. He changed it from Buczkowski to Birch.
What’s Birch? So interesting because, you know, my mother… If you met my mother, and you told her your name, after she said, “Oh, hi, Carol Birch. Birch, what kind of name is that? My mother always asked that. Mm, Pittsburgh’s a very ethnic city.”
Well, my father, I thought, you know what, it was just like a WASP name. Nobody really knows what Birch is. And I never really thought about it.
Now my brother Bob was born in 1938. He went to Arsenal Elementary School, right in the inner city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. And he was sitting in class one day. It must have been like second or third grade. He was young and the teacher was going around, “What nationality are you? What nationality are you?”
Well, he was sitting beside his best friend. Mm, his best friend was Manny. Manny had come from Greece so Manny said, “I’m Greek.”
“Robert, what are you?”
“No, you’re not!” She pounced on him; she sneered. He remembered feeling very attacked by her.
“You. What are you, an Indian? Uh, ha! If you don’t tell us what you are tomorrow after you’ve gone home to see your family, you’re gonna go to the principal’s office.”
So, my little big brother came home and asked Daddy, “Who are we? What are we?” I wasn’t born yet so this is all hearsay. You know, it’s all a story.
And my father said to my brother, “You’re an American. If you tell that teacher you are anything but an American, when you come home, you’re going to get a beating.” This is not a child abuse story.
Anyway, um, my brother, rightly, I think, chose to oppose this teacher, not our father. And when he went to school and he didn’t say that he was anything but an American, the teacher was so offended by his defiance, she sent him to the principal’s office. (Now I wish I knew this principal’s name and I am going to find it out again because he was a wonderful man. All my first attempts have failed.) When my brother went into the principal’s office, my father was already there and the principal said, “Bob, you go back to class. Don’t you worry. I’monna take care of your dad. And I’m gonna take care of your teacher.”
Well, I went to Arsenal Elementary School. I didn’t have that teacher. Didn’t have anybody who asked me what nationality I was but I was there in 1954. In fact, I was there when Salk had the first polio vaccine. That was my class. I was standing there on that day in February 1954. But that’s another story.
Anyway, um, my life changed. I went to Arsenal Elementary School. But when I was in the fifth grade, we moved from the inner city to the suburbs.
Now it seems to me that the Irish and the Italians and the Polish were always jockeying for position, some idea of hierarchy, who was closest to being a WASP. I really don’t think any of my friends would have been my friends in middle school or high school if my name had been Carol Buczkowski. I never heard anyone say anything slanderous against those whose names ended in S-K-I but my friends were Nancy Davis, Sharon Nixon, Susie McGregor, Christine Larson. Huh! Now, I went to college. I got married. The man I married first, ha, ha, ha, was a man whose last name was Norwegian.
I always felt like Carol Birch sorta sounded like clip clop, just such a nn… bitey sort of name. And now my name was Carol Nermo. Huh! I thought that was so wonderful. You know, there’s no stigma in being Norwegian and, and aren’t all Norwegians beautiful and tall and clean and good. And now maybe was I all those things, suddenly tall, suddenly beautiful, suddenly good.
And when that marriage ended in a divorce, who was I? I wasn’t Miss Nermo. I wasn’t Professor Nermo so I put my family through all kinds of misery. I was gonna change my name for a short time to legally just Carol ’cause you have to have two names to own property and I hoped someday I’d have property. And then I said to my mother, “You know what? I’m a storyteller and, oh, Mother, ethnics in. I’m gonna go back to being Carol Buczkowski.”
And my mother said, “You’ll kill your father.” My mother was Scotch Presbyterian. My mother and my father had what was then known as a mixed marriage. I don’t think it would have killed Daddy and here’s why.
I divorced in 1975. Not long after that, my father who left school in the fourth-grade ’cause he punched a nun and climbed out the window. My father didn’t have a formal education but he was smart and he read a lot. And he was on a senior citizen’s cable show. The cable show, hav…, it was a kind of trivial pursuit, asking questions and then a panel from this senior center or panel from that senior center would compete at getting the right answers. There was a very, mm mmm… well, she was very flirtatious, very attractive young host and she asked a question and the answer was Paderewski. And she went over to my daddy and she flirted with him and she went, “Oh, Mr. Birch, you must feel a little bit Polish to know that answer.
And my father, my father looked at that pretty, young girl and he said, “I’m not a little bit Polish, I’m all Polish!” with his arms thrown wide.
Storyteller Jim Stowell tells how an immigrant woman is faced with trials and hardships, and how she established a sense of pride and dignity for herself and her family.
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Spring
What is an “illegal immigrant?”
Why is a first home a dream come true? How does owning a home possibly change a family? A community?
What is the difference between hope and dignity? How are they the similar? How does “hope” and “dignity” show up in the story? In your life?
Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants by David Bacon
Education and Life Lessons
Family and Childhood
Living and Traveling Abroad
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Hi, my name is Jim Stowell. And the story, “Spring,” is from an evening of stories I did entitled, “Joe,” that was produced by the great American history theater.
Spring. See a woman’s face. See her face. Hmm, late 30’s early 40’s, dark skin. At one point in her life, she was an immigrant. At one point in her life, she was an illegal immigrant. Oh, illegal immigrants much maligned these days.
See her face as she looks at her first house. She’s never owned a house before. She’s never owned anything like this before. See her face as she looks at her first house and you will see joy. A joy that’s so intense it makes her cry. Now watch, as she walks up to the front door of her house and the door opens and we see the empty rooms of the house. See her face as she sees her first home.
See her face and you will see pride. But this is not the kind of pride that goes before the fall. This is the kind of pride she has earned and has every right to. When she crossed the Rio Grande, she was carrying the baby and her husband helped with the two younger children. And they crossed from Mexico into Texas, and, somehow, they ended up in Minnesota. And then, alas, as too often happens, the husband was the one that had the most trouble making the adjustments and he started to drink. He became a drunk. This was not him in Mexico. And then, he started to hit her. And he beat her, and he threatened her, and he threatened the lives of her children.
She made another decision and she left. And she went from house to house, to keep her children safe. And she was desperately poor, living in an apartment with friends, selling tortillas. And one of her friends came to her and said, “You know, there’s this place in Minneapolis called, “Project for Pride and Living,” PPL, maybe you should go there because they have a job training program. She went. She took the program. And when it was over, the people at PPL said, “Well, you know, we don’t just train you how to work. We help you get a job. How can we help you?”
And she said, “I’m going to work here.”
And the people at PPL said, “We love that, we do. We like you. But we feel there’s no jobs there. So, how can we help you?”
And she said, “I’m going to work here. If you’re putting me out the front door, I’m coming in the back. If you put me out the back door, I’m coming in the front. I’m going to keep coming in the door until you finally hire me. Because I have to work here. Because I want to help other people the way you helped me.” They hired her as the receptionist.
Now I see her face as she sees her first home. Her first home as an American citizen. See her face and you will see pride.
Now hear the voices of her children as they run past her into the empty rooms of the house, filling the rooms with life. See the face of that little boy or that little girl as they look in their own room, now no longer sleeping three to a bed. They not only have their own bed, they have their own room. See that child’s face. You’ll see joy all right. Their own room, oh, you’ll see joy all right. But…You’ll see pride there as well.
Now see that woman’s face as she sees the look on her child’s face and, oh, you’ll see joy. A joy so intense…it makes her cry again. See her face as she sees the look on her child’s face.
See her face…and you’ll know what dignity looks like.
This is the true story of storyteller, Laura Simms, telling a deeply traumatized boy – an ex- child soldier from Sierra Leone, West Africa – a story in a taxicab in New York City. The story within this story relieves his misery and, in the process, Laura discovers the power of the tale and the boy’s innate and potent resilience.
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Sudden-Story
Would you have tried to keep the young man from Sierra Leone with you?
Why was a story and this particular story helpful to the young man who was about to get on a plane to go back to his war-torn country?
Did you expect the ending to the story? Why was this young man able to go on to have a family, an education and career success? How do you think he was able to rise above his experience as a child soldier?
A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah
Folktales from Around the World by Jane Yolen
Website – The Children Bill of Rights, 1996 http://www.newciv.org/ncn/cbor.html
African American/Black History
Education and Life Lessons
Living and Traveling Abroad
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
name is Laura Simms. I’m from New York and this story takes place in New York, in 1996.
I was hired by UNICEF and Norwegian Peoples Aid to be a facilitator for a conference called Young Voices. And there were 53 kids from 23 third world countries there to create a Children’s Bill of Rights. So, my job, of course, as a storyteller was to listen to stories and help kids tell stories. And I heard stories that, literally, changed my life.
So, I became really close to two boys from Sierra Leone, West Africa, who, on meeting them, their voices were gentle and sweet. They were skinny. It was snowing out and they’re wearing summer clothes. When I heard their stories, it was something else. They were ex-child soldiers. They had committed atrocities. It was an amazing experience. And one boy, Aluzin Bah, fantastically, beautiful boy asked me to keep him in New York. And I was up every night, “Could I keep him in New York? How could I send a child back to war?”
I thought about if it was 50 years ago and I was in the Holocaust and somebody brought me out and then sent me back. At any rate, UNICEF heard about this. The boy told me, “Don’t tell anybody,” but he was 15, so, he told everybody. And ha ha. So, I, um, was told, “No conditions could I keep him in New York.” Actually, both boys, I’m still very close to. And the other boy Ishmael is now my adopted son.
We were in the last day of the conference. In the morning, the kids were getting ready to get on the bus to go to JFK. And Aluzin was furious with me for not letting him stay, suddenly began to sob. But it wasn’t just sobbing, it was a kind of, almost like, an earthquake in his heart. And I begged someone at UNICEF to just let me take him to JFK on my own, in a taxicab. And, of course, he didn’t trust me. So, I was side by side with a tall, Norwegian, sort of Viking, humanitarian. So, the three of us were in the taxi. And Aluzin was crying. And I thought to myself, “If he can’t get on the plane, he can’t go back to war in this way because it would make him in danger.” So finally, when he was heaving and heaving, I just said, “Aluzin, I’ll do everything I can. Everything. To stay in touch with you, to see if I could get you out of Sierra Leone. But I have to take you back. Tell me what can I do for you now? I can’t keep you here. What can I? You can’t go on a plane, traumatized.”
And he stopped crying. And he looked at me and he said, “Tell me a story.”
It was as if every story that I knew just sort of flooded out of my body. And I was…”What do you, what do you do?”
You have like five minutes. It has to be a story that means something. And then a story just arrived up the back of my legs and I had no idea if this was appropriate or not but I thought, just go for it. And I tell this story.
It’s about a boy, a poor boy who had no money. It’s a story from Morocco. And he went to market place he saw everything in the market. He wanted everything. He couldn’t have anything. But in the middle of the market, there was a magician performing a magic act. The magician had a magic finger. Anything he touched, turned to gold. Everybody came, applauded, left. But the boy was like, Wha! The magician said, “Ha, ha, ha, ha. You like my magic.”
And the boy said, “Yeah.”
Magician said, “Do you want some gold?”
The boy said, “Yeah.”
A little mouse came by, the magician touched it, turned to gold. He said, “Here.”
The boy said, “No, I want more.”
The magician looked. There was a huge table with, with plates and brass objects he turned to gold. He said, “Here.”
The boy said, “I want more.”
“Oh.” The magician said, “Come with me.” He took him. There was a field filled with cows. He turned all the cows to gold. “Here.”
The boy said, “No! I want more.”
The magician said, “What do you want?”
The boy said, “I want a magic finger.”
Shuli, my Viking guard, said, “Why did you tell that story?”
Honestly, I wasn’t sure I knew. But Aluzin said, “I know. Because that’s what I want.” And I knew, that if this boy survived, he would more than survive. He would live because he wanted his own life force.
We got to JFK. He got on the plane. He went back to Sierra Leone. I called him every Friday morning, as I could, until the rebels attacked and it was hard to reach him. And then I called him again.
And I’ll tell you one tiny incident more, which is so beautiful about these kids. It was one Tuesday, I called him, was actually my birthday, and, selfishly, what I really wanted to do was have a cappuccino and get back into bed. So I, with my cappuccino, did get into bed and did make the call and I wasn’t going to tell him it was my birthday. I thought how lucky I am.
And when I called and, you know, there were two phones in Freetown through Sierratel, and I would say, “Aluzin Bah.” And everybody would call out Aluzin!”
And then I would hear people calling, “Hello, hello.” Hundreds of people waiting just in case somebody might call them. And he got on the phone. He said, “Laura, how are you?”
And I blurted out, “It’s my birthday!” And Aluzin, crying and laughing, called out to hundreds of people and said, “It’s Laura’s birthday!” And in the middle of the war, all these people sang “Happy Birthday.” And I realized that it would have been the most selfish thing if I hadn’t told him and given them the opportunity for joy.
Then the story… I’ll just tell you the great thing. That Aluzin graduated from college this year. He’s working in a bank so he could bring his childhood sweetheart to Montreal, where he lives. And he’s working for the benefit of children. And to me that’s a great story.
A bridge collapses in Minneapolis and the media is there. Suddenly, watching the stories of all the heroes from that day, Kevin is aware of the great diversity in his city. Citizens of every color and creed were there to rescue and help people in the midst of this tragedy. Another friend of Kevin’s tells him how upset he was when people from other countries showed up to work in a local factory. Then, this same friend hears his grandmother being interviewed on the radio as a “first generation” American and realizes that we are all immigrants.
My friend, Al Baker, is an Anishinaabe medicine man and he come from Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation. And he said, “You can survive anything with a sense of humor or sense of self.”
Sense of humor. Ah, I think it comes from a region or, more specifically, I think it comes from weather. There’s a story that I tell when I travel. And it really tests if people have the same sense of humor.
It happened back in 1965 when seven tornadoes hit the Twin Cities area of Minneapolis and St. Paul. And I remember, everybody was outside; nobody was inside where it was safe. They’re all out trying to spot a tornado. And these tornadoes hit, and I remember, it changed my life forever. And I, I was listening a while back, you can download, off the radio station, these old broadcasts, and I was downloading one of the broadcasts. And the announcer was saying, this is before Doppler so people were just calling in reporting tornadoes, and the announcer was saying, “Yeah, call in, call in, if you’ve got a story!” And a guy calls and he says, “Yeah, I was in my car. I was driving down the road, and all of a sudden, I seen a tornado coming my way. So, I hunkered down on the floor, and a tornado came through, and blew out all my windows!”
And the announcer says, “Man, are you OK? Are you all right?”
The guy says, “Yeah, that’s not why I’m calling. The school carnival has been canceled.”
Ah, sense of self. I think a sense of self comes from family, from community. There’s a strong Midwestern sense of self, I find, in Minnesota. When a tragedy happened somewhere, you really find out what you’re made of. You find out the essence of your community.
When 9/11 happened in New York. You could just see the “New York-ness” come out of people. “We’re not going to let this get us.”
And there was a bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis on 35-W. When I grew up in Minneapolis, it was a very white community, the one I grew up in. There was no person of color in my school. And when I saw that bridge collapse, when a tragedy happens, you’re either there or not. It’s not selective. So, whoever was on that bridge got it. And when they showed the people that were on the bridge, it was such a mix of colors, such a mix of ethnicity. It really surprised me. And when the heroes, um, came into focus, they were people of all colors, of all racial backgrounds. But they were Minnesotans. ‘Cause when they tried to come and interview, the reporters tried to find them for interviews, no they weren’t there. They’d saved people, then they went home for dinner. Um, so they were hard to be found.
Ah, there was a buddy of mine, Dave. He lives in Worthington, Minnesota. He’s… his family farm is always on a plaque at the Minnesota State Fair because it goes back over 100 years. And they’re, just they’re ensconced in, in the countryside. And a while ago, the rendering plant in town threatened to go under. And so, what happened, they got people from all over the world, people from Haiti, East Africa, Mexico, to come in and save the plant. And all of a sudden, that town is full of people from other countries.
And Dave said he was listening to the radio, the other day, and they had a special show on about first-generation Americans and the problems they faced. And he’s listenin’ to the radio, all these different stories, when all of a sudden, his grandma comes on. And he forgot that she was a first generation American. And he heard her telling stories and laughing in a way he’d never heard in his life. And this one girl got on and she was talking about going on a date. And she was from Mexico, her family was from Mexico, and she went on a date with this farm kid. And their car got stuck in a ditch, buried the axles, and they couldn’t get it out. And when this kid finally got her home late, she said her dad was furious, just screaming at this kid in Spanish. All of sudden, Dave’s grandma starts cracking up. And she says, yeah, the same thing happened to her but it was a horse and buggy and her dad was screaming in Swedish.