Megan was confused when her 9th grade classmates reacted differently to the assassination of President Kennedy than her family did. She didn’t know who was right. And then she learned to listen to what her heart told her was truth for her. (more…)
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!”
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.
Laura befriends and, then, adopts a former child soldier from Sierra Leone. Years later, Ishmael Beah goes on to become a best-selling author. One day, while speaking on a panel together, she and her grown son hear of the genocide in Rwanda. A woman from Rwanda tells of a child who makes a difficult choice when he finds himself in the same room with the man who murdered his parents. Laura’s son, Ishmael, understands and applauds the child’s choice. He is glad the child will not have to define himself as a murderer and can keep in touch with the place within that Ishmael has once again found – the place within that is untouched by war, murderous alternatives and biases of any sort.
What surprised you the most about the story Laura and Ishmael heard about Rwanda?
Do you think it is fair to have children fighting in wars?
Most people want to know what are causes of war. What do you think are the causes of Peace?
A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah
Making Peace in Times of War by Pema Chodron
The Trauma of Everyday Life by Mark Epstein MD
A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Story of Forgiveness by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela
The Way of Council by Jack Zimmerman
African American/Black History
Family and Childhood
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
Hi, I’m Laura Simms. In 1996, I was a facilitator at a UNICEF conference at the United Nations called Young Voices. There were 57 young people from 23 third world countries. They were there, actually, to create what later became a Children’s Bill of Rights. My very first day, I met two young boys; thin, wearing cotton shorts and T-shirts, who came from Sierra Leone, West Africa. I literally went home because it was mid-November, was snowing, they had never been in cold weather, and gave them my winter coats. The interesting thing is, of course, that years passed and I got these two boys out of the war in Africa. One of them became my son and reminded me often that first year that he would never wear a women’s winter coat again.
It was an amazing 10 days. And a lot of what happened during those 10 days was, these kids listening to each other’s stories. And these boys were so gentle, so sweet that I had met outside of UNICEF that day, who wore my coats, wrapped up, they told horrendous stories of having been child soldiers. Learning to be murderers. Believing that these murderers would take revenge on the death of their parents, who they had both seen killed, including family members and friends. A terrible civil war occurred in Sierra Leone.
So many things about Ishmael. One is that Ishmael wrote an amazing memoir. The publishers thought, well, a few people will like this but actually it became a bestseller A Long Way Gone. Twenty million copies sold. Everybody wanted to read this book. About a child’s experience in war. And Ishmael and I were invited to give a talk together (which in those years we did a lot) at a journalism school and university. And then, we were on a panel and one of the other panelists was a woman from Rwanda. Let me back up a minute, because people were always asking me how could you do this? How could you have a child who has murdered be your child, live in your house? But I’m a storyteller and I’ve been meditating for over 25 years. And I really understood, something I believed, that inside each of us there is a place that is untarnished by violence, untarnished by circumstances. And if we come back to that place, that’s the place at which we can transform. And that, basically, everybody is good. And I knew from Ishmael, at least, that he’d had enough violence to last ten lifetimes. The last thing he wanted to do was to be engaged with any conflict at all. And he was peaceful. He grew up in a traditional storytelling culture.
The woman from Rwanda. After Ishmael and I spoke, she spoke and, of course, she spoke about stories. It was her job in Rwanda, after the terrible genocide, to listen to young people’s stories. And she told a tale, true tale, that was harrowing but haunting. It was a story about a Tutsi boy who was caught in a horrible massacre. And his body along with the bodies of his family and all his neighbors were thrown into a ravine, assumed dead. And that night, he awoke under the bodies. Shocked. And made his way up out this sea…of misery and blood. He was a kid, so, what did he do? He wandered back to his house. He washed himself and he got under the sheets on his parents’ bed and went to sleep. In the middle of the night, a man came in, set his machete down next to the bed. He washed. Also seeking comfort, he climbed into the bed. He hadn’t seen the boy. But they both slept deeply and in the middle of the night seeking comfort, they rolled into each other’s arms and slept in the safety of embrace.
She described how early in the morning, the boy told her, he woke up and he was face to face with the man who had killed his family. And at first he thought, “I should kill him.” But he had enough violence and he had slept in that man’s arms as if that man was his parent. So, he got up out of the bed and wandered out into the bush, where he was eventually found and saved.
Ishmael and I listened to the story. And seated in the lobby of our hotel that night, we talked about. How it had moved us both. And Ishmael said, “That’s the place isn’t it? That, that’s that place. That untarnished place.”
And I said, “Yes, it was really remarkable to hear the story. Most people would probably say that boy should have killed that man.”
And Ishmael said, “No. If he had killed the man. He would have been a murderer as well.”
Those years, every so often, Ishmael and I would talk about that story. And then one morning, he got up, and knocked on my bedroom door. And he said, “It’s still there. It’s still there.”
And I said, “What? What is still there?”
And he said, “I know we heard that story. I know we were talking about this but I thought that place inside of me was gone. That the war had taken it away. So, but I woke up, I felt it. I felt the joy. It’s still there. That place is still there.”
I understood. He would more than survive. Which he did, going on to write the book To Marry As A Child. And for me it changed everything. I understood the goal of my story telling. That place where, regardless of race, of violence, of learned habits, of bias. That place exists in all of us. And sometimes, I weep for the world. But knowing that I can do something about it completely cheers me up.
Judy Sima tells the story of her mother, Elsa Mosbach. She relates the events leading to Elsa’s escape from Germany during WWII, her encounter with the Gestapo following Kristallnacht or the Night of the Broken Glass, and how she used her father’s WWI medals to gain her father’s release from Buchenwald Concentration Camp. (more…)
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’s mother and father came from opposite ends of the political spectrum which meant that his mother and father’s family did as well. Bill’s father could not tolerate the biased language that was spoken at his in-law’s dinner table. Then, one Thanksgiving dinner, Bill’s father can take the bigotry no longer and speaks out. Bill learns a valuable lesson about the importance of taking a stand.
What lessons about race and other differences have you learned from your family? What spoken and unspoken beliefs are there?
Are you aware of different racial and ethnic beliefs in your family? Are there examples of tolerance and intolerance clashing?
Have you ever been in a situation where someone speaks outright prejudice and racism or speaks in coded intolerant language? What are different ways of approaching that language or belief when you hear it?
Racism Learned at an Early Age Through Racial Scripting by Robert Williams
Education and Life Lessons
Family and Childhood
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
Hi, my name is Bill Harley. I have a theory that what’s honored at the table, at the dinner table, is who we become. I think about that, particularly, with my kids because, uh, they know that it’s their job to be funny so they’re always trying to make milk come out of someone’s nose. But more than that, there’s really questions about how we act in the world.
My dad, uh, was a New Deal Democrat. And his father had been a principal and the superintendent of schools and then he became a doctor and he died quite young. Uh, but he had married into… my grandfather married into this rock-ribbed Republican family and it was very conservative. Uh, there was all those changes that happened between Republicans and Democrats at that period. But there’s a lot of evidence that that side of the family was instrumental in founding the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana. And my grandfather was quite different from that. And my dad was a New Deal Democrat. He was the only person in his high school when the principal asked in a convocation, “Who here would vote for Franklin Delano Roosevelt?” In 1936, my father stood up and said, “I would.” And that’s the way he was.
I remember going to, uh, Sunday afternoon dinners at my great-grandmother’s house where all that side of the family came. All the Republicans and the business leaders and the more conservative people and then my dad would show up. And he would have to sit there in the living room, uh, with all those other folks, all the guys, while the women were in the kitchen and we would have to just sit there and take it. And the men would argue; they would argue politics. My grandmother would say, “I just hate politics!”
And my father would just kind of… have to bite his tongue through the whole thing. And then he married into a family that was just like that. His, his, uh, father-in-law, my grandfather, was a hardware salesman. He hated Franklin Delano Roosevelt ’til the day he died in 1973 and he was prejudiced. He was biased.
He did not use the “n” word all the time but I’d heard him use it. He, uh, favored the more polite term for the same meaning, which was colored. Um, he would talk about colored folks in an offhand way. There was a man named Bill (I don’t even know his last name) who did odd jobs around the house. And, uh, he referred to my grandfather as Mr. Wolf and my grandmother would bring him a plate, uh, and have him sit on the back porch when he was done with his chores to eat, to share a meal with him. So that was hard on my dad. And I think it was probably hard on my grandfather. None of this was spoken about though. It was just this, um, milieu, this, this thing that you grow up in. And the truth is, uh, in Indianapolis where I grew up, we were surrounded by it too. The man next door to me was an incredible racist. And I knew that he was very kind to me but my dad didn’t like me to go over there but he just said, “Don’t go over there.” He didn’t explain why.
This is all unspoken, uh, or unclear to me until 1964. I remember sitting in the kitchen, uh, shortly after dinner on that night and the radio was on and the kitchen table and my dad turned it off and swore and walked out of the kitchen. And they just reported that Medgar Evers, who was a leader of the NAACP in Mississippi had been shot. And I knew that that was wrong and I knew that that was bad but I didn’t understand. My dad didn’t stop to explain it to me. It wasn’t for kids. There I was in fourth grade and it was, uh, the Freedom Summer when SNCC organizers (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), uh, had young black people and young white folks go door to door to register, end… endangering, endangering themselves, breaking the law so that they could change, though I really learned on Thanksgiving dinner.
Thanksgiving dinner is a time when everybody comes and shares and there’s all these rituals that we follow. And my grandparents, those conservative grandparents, uh, came to our house and they stayed at our house in my brother’s room and my brother had to sleep with me. And my other grandmother came, my father’s mother came, and the meal was prepared. And I look back on it now and I can imagine how hard it was for my father and his father-in-law, my grandfather, my mother’s father to sit at the table with each other. And I can imagine my grandfather who is very clear about the way the world was just saying things just to bait my father a little bit about all the unrest and turmoil that was going on. I don’t remember what was said until the very end of the meal. I remember my father was at the end of the table and my grandmother with my grandfather was across from me sitting next to my mom. And my grandfather made some offhand comment about, “Well, you know, you really can’t trust those colored people, you know. They’re the ones that are causin’ all the trouble; they’re the ones that are breakin’ all the laws.”
This is the kind of offhand thing as if we all agreed with this. He needed affirmation. And my father said, “That’s not true.”
So, it was a little bit of a throwing down the gauntlet. I never heard it spoken open like that and the table went quiet. And my grandfather said, Well, you know, it’s… they can’t help it. It’s just the way they are.” I see him chewing on a toothpick.
And my father said… and he swore and then he said, “Frank, that’s not true!” He called his father-in-law by the first name. He said, “That’s absolutely not true!”
And my mom said, “Max, Max!” And now all the women get up and they’re all flitting around trying to figure out how to calm the situation down. My mom says, “I’ll go get some more coffee” and my other grandmother says, “Does anybody want any more cookies?”
And my grandfather says, “Well, that’s just the way I see it.” Like it’s an opinion so I’m entitled to my opinion, whether it’s true or not.
And my father said, “For every black man that breaks the law, I can show you a dozen white men who do the same.”
And my grandfather said, “Well, that’s the way I see it.”
And he said, “Well you can’t…” My dad said, “You can’t speak like this at my table!”
And when he said that you could really feel something breaking. and I didn’t… There I was nine-years-old, 10-years-old and I didn’t really understand it except that I knew that the rules of civility and, uh, civility had been broken by my dad. Aah, now we weren’t getting along. And everybody flitted around and I don’t remember exactly what happened next. There’s that awkward silence. This is not going to get resolved. There’s no resolution to this story.
My dad went up…out of the front door and smoked a cigarette and tried to calm down. My grandfather went out the back door and chewed on a cigar and tried to calm down. And they went to bed that night and. I couldn’t hear them. No one said anything to us. I remember my brothers and I just looking down at the floor wishing we weren’t there.
My dad probably railed against his father-in-law to the daughter of the guy that he was mad at. My grandfather probably went in the bedroom with his wife and said, “I think we should leave tonight.”
So, I didn’t know what it meant then but meaning takes time. And I look back on it now and I think that as one of the most seminal, the most seminal moments in my moral education ’cause my father had broken some rule of civility to say what he thought was right at the dinner table. And after that moment, I saw my father differently and I saw the world differently. And I also saw myself differently because this was my dad and this is what’s at the table saying, “This is how things should be. We don’t talk like this.”
And so, when I heard some of my friends or teachers or anybody speak and say these out…, like, … right racist things or even the subtle coding, I knew that I was wrong if I didn’t say something. That I needed to speak up and I didn’t always because it’s hard to do. But I knew that that was something I carried with me.
That was something I learned at the dinner table and that was what was honored. So, the question I ask myself all the time is, “What’s honored at the table?”
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.
In 1972 Diane marries outside her race (as they say) and her mother-in-law refuses to attend the wedding, among other things. What happens to the family’s relationship afterward is anyone’s guess. (more…)
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…)
Story gathering & Storytelling ideal in summer programs
or marking special events during the summer.
As another school year comes to a close, students look forward to the lazy days of summer. But for many educators, as well as camp leaders and church organizers, summer can be an exceptionally busy time, especially for those charged with creating and/or leading summer programs and projects for young people or adults. If you’re looking for new ideas for your summer program, storytelling might be a welcome addition — and a fun and effective way to bring people together, bridge differences and foster a sense of community.
Storytelling can be shaped into a part of your summer program with story-events taking place throughout your scheduled activities and at its conclusion. Story gathering and storytelling can also mark special events, places or an anniversary. These narratives are sometimes called Legacy stories. A story- performance can be presented at the conclusion of a summer program, for your participants or for a wider public audience.
Storytelling has always been a part of the human venture. It allows us to connect with each other and to make meaning of our world. When we share our life stories with others, we open up opportunities for seeing new perspectives. By making storytelling part of your summer program, you can increase awareness of differences within your group and help build an environment of respect, compassion and understanding.
How to incorporate storytelling
Whether you use storytelling in a summer program or during the regular school year, it’s important to remember that some people may find it easy to talk about their lives while others will feel reluctant or shy to share their stories.
As soon as you say the words “storytelling,” some people will brace themselves for fear of being embarrassed or exposed. As the leader or facilitator, you can simply assure everyone from the beginning that they will not be asked to share anything that they do not want to share.
Ideas to get you started
Wondering how to incorporate storytelling into your summer program? The educators at RaceBridges for Schools, a nonprofit initiative that offers free lesson plans on diversity and interracial understanding, offer the following ideas from their storytelling toolkit (available for free download here):
If you’d like to build community in a general way, ask your group to:
Tell a story of a time when you felt strong
Tell a story about a time when you surprised yourself
If you’d like to bridge differences of race or ethnicity, you might ask your group to tell stories about:
A time when you felt like you were on the outside
A special time with your family
If you’d like to get at issues of insider/outsider feelings, ask:
Tell me a story of a time when you were misunderstood
Tell me a story about a time when you were alone and then someone helped you
Or to get your group talking about their values and beliefs, ask them to:
Tell a story about a time when you stood up for something you believed in
Tell me a story of a time when you had faith
However you approach storytelling in your group, it’s important to remember that underneath it all, the exercise is ultimately about building relationships and listening to each other. And it should be a fun way to get to know each other!
For more ideas about how to incorporate storytelling into your classroom or summer program, or for more units on a variety of themes about diversity, visit: RaceBridges Studio.
Stories do so much more than merely entertain; they can boost brainpower, build bridges, and even impart a little wisdom. If you need a reminder about the power and promise of storytelling, here are seven wonderful—and maybe even surprising—reasons to make stories part of your teaching toolbox:
1. Instill values.
We all know the phrase “the moral of the story.” That’s because it’s so much easier to convey values—anything from the virtues of hard work to the need to respect others—through stories. And this educational technique has been around forever—from the Bible to Aesop’s Fables to fairy tales and nursery rhymes.
2. Make writing easier.
If students get in the habit of telling stories, which require a sort of composition in the brain, they are likely to find the act of writing easier. They will be used to searching their memories for relevant details, organizing the narrative, and thinking about how and what they want to communicate to their audience.
3. Nurture empathy and understanding.
By sharing our individual stories and personal histories, we tell other people who we are. And by listening to others’ stories, we learn who they are. In the classroom, listening to each other’s stories helps us see each other in new ways, to understand where other people are coming from, and what makes us all unique or the same. In this way, stories have the power to foster empathy and new connections among different groups of students.
4. Help them make mental connections—and maybe even do better in math?
There’s a reason we use “story problems” in math class. A new study suggests that preschool children’s early storytelling abilities are predictive of their mathematical ability two years later [http://www.nationalliteracytrust.net/Pubs/oneill.html]. This study echoes other recent research on the value of storytelling to teach the “whole brain” using the multiple intelligences and the integration of thinking in the left and right brain.
5. Boost critical thinking.
We all know there are two sides to every story, and what better way to help students truly comprehend that than through storytelling. Just as one student’s version of an event may be quite different from another, so one nation’s perspective on history might be very different from ours. By exploring different versions of one event or story, you can open students’ minds to new ways of thinking.
6. Pass on new language.
Just as they do in reading, listeners pick up new words and language patterns through stories. They learn new words or new contexts for already familiar words. The more stories they hear, the more they pick up on narrative patterns and start to make predictions about what will happen. That experience helps readers at all levels tackle new and challenging texts.
7. Banish boredom.
It may seem obvious, but stories are simply so much more fun than lectures, workbooks, and the chalkboard. When students’ minds start to check out—or their bodies start to slump—reenergize the mood in the classroom with a storytelling lesson or activity.
Trying to assimilate into another culture is a difficult task. In an effort to fit in with the population in their inner city and later suburban city, storyteller Carol Birch recounts personal experiences she had with this difficult task. The desire to be American has everything to do with uniqueness and nothing to do with being just like everyone else. Listen as Carol shares how her father embraced all of his cultural heritages.
Storyteller Carol Birch 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. Join her as she recalls personal family stories of her cultural background, and celebrate as the family embraces their heritage.
Classroom Reflections & Activities:
Have students find out about their own cultural backgrounds, and then share these with the class.
Provide time for students to research what a WASP is, and why it is part of American history.
Give students an icebreaker activity that allows them to ask about the cultural heritages of the other students. Create a worksheet with a list of things for students to investigate about their fellow classmates, such as: find a student whose cultural heritage speaks Spanish, find a student whose cultural heritage practices a religion different from your own, find a student whose cultural heritage celebrates a holiday you are unfamiliar with, etc. This allows students the opportunity learn about others in a non-threatening way..
Professional storyteller La’Ron Williams grew up in an area of Flint, MI called “Elm Park.” It was an area that—from the 1940s to the 1960s—was transformed by a confluence of race, politics, and economics, from an all-White neighborhood into one that was all-Black. In his poignant and engaging story, “From Flint, Michigan to Your Front Door: Tracing the Roots of Racism in Working Class America,” Williams describes some of his earliest experiences with a growing awareness that he was receiving contradictory messages about himself as a Black person: although there was the nurturing support he got from his immediate community, there was also the shame he absorbed from the larger society’s portrayal of African-Americans in the mass market and the media.
Williams tells stories from the heart, and his stories tug at his listeners’ hearts too. With his engaging manner, Williams addresses an emotionally laden topic—racism—by combining an adult’s analysis and wisdom with the fully believable wonderment and confusion he felt as a child. Listeners of every color and background are drawn into his story precisely because it is suffused with a child’s sincerity and genuine bafflement that the reality he lived didn’t match the stories he was taught about himself on TV and at school.
Williams’s story begins in Chappy’s Barbershop in Flint at the end of the summer of 1955, when the author was only four years old. It was in Chappy’s that Williams first saw the cover of Jet magazine featuring a photograph of Emmett Till, an African-American teenager from Chicago who was murdered in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a White woman. It was a grotesque photo, taken after Till’s body was recovered from the Tallahatchie River. Two bullet wounds were visible on Till’s swollen head.
Although he was a young child, Williams describes the jarring impact of that photograph upon his life. With an adult’s vision, he gives language to his childhood feelings of confusion as he struggled to understand why the images of White people portrayed on TV didn’t match the treatment of which he knew them to be capable. Following Till’s death, his grandmother explained it by saying, “White folks hate Colored folks!” But almost all of the characters Williams saw on TV were “White folks,” and while they were sometimes funny, wise, courageous or clever, they were never cruel.
Williams uses this feeling of disconnection to provide insight into the dynamics of “blockbusting” and his own “transitioning” neighborhood. He uses the insight provided by his “outsider” status to offer enlightening explanations about his personal experiences with racial hierarchy: From the time his well-meaning but racially unaware third-grade teacher forced him to use “flesh” colored paint, to the incident when he was slapped in the face and called a “Nigger” by an older boy who was a member of the school safety patrol.
In the final part of the story Williams recalls a time when he was the only Black student in his seventh-grade English class. His class was asked to write about something called “the Beatles.” Williams didn’t know who they were, and his classmates and teacher shared a laugh at his expense. Later, when he wrote about Emmett Till, he discovered that neither his teacher nor his classmates had ever heard of him. In this case though, no one felt deprived for not knowing. No one was deemed “stupid” and no one was laughed at.
Williams’s story is both entertaining and enlightening. As he reflects upon his youth, his listeners are given an opportunity to reflect upon their own upbringings, and everyone thinks a little harder about the continuing entrenchment of racism in American society.
HERE ARE SOME EXCERPTS FROM WILLIAMS’ STORY‘FROM FLINT, MI TO YOUR FRONT DOOR: TRACING THE ROOTS OF RACISM IN AMERICA”
“At the end of the summer, in 1955, I was four years old, sittin’ there in Chappy’s Barbershop on a hot, hot, hot Saturday afternoon – (the kind of hot that’s so hot it makes grownups sleepy) – and I was lookin’ over at the table where Chappy kept the newspapers, and the magazines, and the candy – like I always did – when I saw this picture on the front cover of “Jet” magazine. It was the sort of thing that, if you’re only four years old, you don’t know what it is you’re lookin’ at . . . But I must have kept on lookin’, because the grownups started talkin’ about it. They said that it was a photograph . . . A photograph of a dead boy’s body . . . The body of a boy named Emmett Till.
I was four years old. It was the year before I even started Kindergarten, and I saw him lying there. He had one eye gouged out, his skull had been bashed in, he had two bullet holes in his head, and his face was swollen up like some kind of giant sponge from hanging for days upside down in waters of the Tallahachie River.
Do you all know about Emmett Till? Emmett Till was a fourteen year old Black boy who went down from Chicago to a place called Money Mississippi to visit his Uncle, and he was dragged out of bed in the middle of the night and brutally beaten and killed by two White men, because he supposedly whistled at, or winked at, or said something flirtatious to a White female store clerk.
In my mind, when I was lookin’ at that picture, it might just as well have been goin’ on right then. ‘Cause in the same second that I was lookin’ at the picture and hearin’ those barbershop men talkin’ about what had happened to Emmet Till, I saw myself dead and beat up like he was. I saw myself lookin’ at myself dead. I saw that Emmett Till’s skin was Brown like my skin was – I mean brown like everybody’s in Chappy’s Barbershop – and I knew in a split minute why this horrible thing had happened to him. Remember, I was only four years old, but I had already heard this kind of thing talked about a thousand times, and I could hear a voice inside my head. It was my grandmother’s voice, speakin’ almost in slow motion, as she gave the answer that she always gave whenever she was mad or frustrated with the shape of the world in which she was livin’. I could hear her say it: “White Folks Hate Colored Folks!”
… In the seventh grade … I was the only Black student in my English class. The teacher had given us an assignment to write a paper about something she called “the Beatles.” Everybody else in class was laughing and having a good time, and seemed to know what the teacher was talking about. I thought it was a joke and wondered why she wanted us to do a paper about insects. Everybody was in a good mood. But when I raised my hand and I asked, “What kind of beetles?” everybody had an even bigger laugh – at my expense. So the teacher told me, in a very condescending tone, that it was alright for me to write on any subject I chose, as long as I did a good job.
. . . So I wrote about Emmett Till. My teacher and classmates had never heard of him.”
Listen to these Women Stories
in your classroom . . .
Bearing witness to the heroic
actions and words of women
Telling inspiring stories
that are little known
and rarely told . . .
Listen to these stories and use the lesson plans with your students
of moving stories of inclusion and exclusion, loss and hope, past
and present. Use these stories in your classroom to inspire and
challenge your students to reflect on their world-view and to broaden
Use these stories as discussion starters for a faculty in-service session
to prompt and animate discussion about race-relations and inclusion.
These lesson plans come with complete text as well as audio, teacher guides,
student activities and further resources on related themes. You may also find
corresponding videos on our sister site, RaceBridgesVideos.com.
These units are also suitable for young adult group discussion as
springboards on the subjects of race and racism.
Japanese American Storyteller Anne Shimojima tells her original story Hidden Memory: Incarceration: Knowing Your Family’s Story and Why it Matters. About her family in the United States, especially during the time of World War II when some of her family were sent to the Japanese-American incarceration camps. Explores in an engaging way xenephobia, racism and being “unseen” in society.Courage and resiliance in a story that is rarely told.
Latina Storyteller Olga Loya tells excerpts from her original story: Being Mexican American : Caught Between Two Worlds – Nepantla. Growing up Mexican American in Los Angeles. Caught between the Latino and Anglo cultures, she realizes that she might belong to an even wider family and community and that perhaps there is a way to live with them all. Warm and spirited.
Native American storyteller Gene Tagaban remembers Elizabeth Peratrovich, Tlingit woman, of Petersburg, Alaska. She attended Western Washington State University. When she returned with a new husband to live in Juno, no one would rent her a home because she was native. This was the limit to Elizabeth. She said: “No more signs. We need better housing, good jobs and good education for the people. And the right to sit wherever we wanted.” Gene Tagaban lovingly remembers the life of Elizabeth Peratrovich through the stories told to him by his own grandmother. The story remembers the shining day, after much struggle and bigotry of the passage of the Alaskan Anti-Discrimination Bill in1945, 20 years before Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of the bus. This account is part of Gene Tagaban’s longer story of identity and belonging : Search Across the Races : I Am Indopino … Or How to Answer the Question : “Who Are You?”.
Native American storyteller Dovie Thomason tells her true story: The Spirit Survives: The American Indian Boarding School Experience: Then and Now. This story weaves together personal narrative and historical accounts about the Indian boarding schools to reveal how they were used to decimate native culture and how some Indians stood up to them. Shocking and Inspiring.
African American storyteller Linda Gorham tells two stories. One is I Am Somebody : Story Poems for Pride and Power. This an upbeat and moving celebration of Linda’s family tree and heritage. The lesson plan guides teachers to invite “pride poems” from their students. In her story Rosa Parks : One of Many Who Sat Down to Stand Up Linda personalizes the words and actions in a story of the famed Rosa Parks. The lesson plan explores the many other heroes of the civil rights movement who “sat down’ to stand up for justice. Self-worth, dignity and courage come alive.
Celebrating Women : Bridgebuilders and Storytellers
Ideas for bringing the universal subject of Women into your classroom.
RaceBridges honors Women’s History Month each year in the month of March. But gender equality is an important diversity issue that can be explored at any time. So we re-publish here our lesson plan for Women’s History Month in this Resource format. We remember that any time in the school year is a good time to explore the struggle for women’s equality and the ideals still not yet
fulfilled. We trust that these ideas, classroom activities and recommended links will be of help for you and your students in exploring this subject.
Please find initial ideas and suggestions in last week’s Part 1 of this Blog Text below.
“A community needs a soul if it is to
become a true home for human beings.
You, the people must find this soul.”
– Pope John Paul II
“The more you praise and celebrate
your life, the more there is in life to celebrate.”
– Oprah Winfrey
“Without a sense of caring, there
can be no sense of community.”
– Anthony Burgess
Here are some further ideas and steps in the process of using storytelling and stories to celebrate a special event in your school or organization. Here are some ideas to get started in the classroom.
Your special event will be grounded in stories collected from your students, stories from others at school, and possible members of the community. Think about who has a story that you want to be sure to include and reach out to them.
You can develop these starter ideas as far as you like, depending on how much time you have and the type of event you’d like to create.
Practice storytelling and listening by partnering students in pairs. Give each pair six minutes (three minutes each) to tell each other a story that relates to the event. When time is up, bring the group back together to discuss their experiences. What does it feel like to tell a story? What is it like to listen?
Interview students outside of your class or other members of the community. Encourage students to be creative about how they offer story invitations. Consider having your students document the stories with audio or video recorders.
Have students collect stories from others and then present them back to the class as first person monologues, that is, to tell the story as if it is their own story. Have students pay attention to details, emotions, and qualities of the storyteller. This exercise encourages empathy and builds public speaking skills. These monologues could be performed at the event.
Have students work in pairs or small groups to improvise scenes based on stories they’ve collected. Give them ten or fifteen minutes to develop a first pass at their idea and then have student groups perform their scenes for each other. These scenes could be performed at the event.
After your students have identified the stories they want to share at the event and how they want to share them (read out loud, performed as monologues, or in improvised scenes) give them time to practice and build confidence. A few times in front of their classmates and getting comfortable speaking in front of the group will help.
Here is a checklist you and your event planning group might consider :
✓ Consider Inviting the whole school or members of the community to participate. Give people enough notice so that they can contribute stories and attend the event.
✓ Invite others to participate
✓ Determine where your event will take place
✓ Be sure to reserve your site well in advance.
✓ Stock up on supplies
✓ You will want to collect initial brainstorming ideas on the board or on large white sheets of paper.
✓ Also think about documentation of your work. Are recorders or flip cameras available?
✓ Make space for stories in the classroom
✓ Consider establishing one part of the room for ongoing work with stories and event preparation.
✓ Model positive energy
● These planning and storytelling activities may be unfamiliar to your students.
Your confidence and enthusiasm will encourage them to keep an open mind.
● Establish Group agreements
Group agreements build trust among students. They are most effective when the group determines them together through a quick brainstorming exercise. Some helpful agreements might be: Use “I statements”, no interrupting, and respect each other’s differences. Your group may have other suggestions as well. You can compose these together and keep them posted in the room as a reminder.
● Use Safe Stories
Be sure to remind your students that this exercise is about stories that are safe and non- threatening. If any issues or discomfort arises with your class, often a simple acknowledgment of feelings, fears or discoveries can put everyone at ease. Remind the class that we build community as we get to know each other.
Explore the many ideas for nurturing stories and storytelling
in your school or class by considering our free Resource
With November just around the corner, Americans are preparing to celebrate not only Thanksgiving but also National American Indian Heritage Month.
For educators, this is the perfect time to explore new perspectives on the history of indigenous peoples in the U.S., as well as to discover the history never heard. One way to do that is to get students thinking critically about what they don’t know — and why they don’t know it.
Of course, students know some things about American Indians. At a young age, they probably learned about wigwams, teepees and other culturally obsolete trappings of early “Indian” society. And all of us were taught about the first Thanksgiving – how the Pilgrims dressed and the “friendly Indians” brought corn to this peaceful gathering of fellowship and gratitude.
But then most of us found out, at some point in our adult life, that the Thanksgiving story was highly mythologized, and that the real history of indigenous people in the U.S. was marked by removal, slaughter, and forced assimilation.
So why don’t we teach that in school? That disconnect between what we teach and what we ignore provides a golden opportunity to expand students’ understanding of the true, historical Native American experience.
Wondering how to spark this discussion in your classroom? Here are some creative ideas:
Start simply by asking students what they’ve been taught about American Indians — their history, their culture, perhaps even their role in the traditional Thanksgiving story. Depending on what you hear, you may want to probe further into their knowledge of Native American genocide.
Next, try exposing them to true stories from the Native American perspective. One you might consider: “The Spirit Survives“ by First Nations storyteller Dovie Thomason. It’s a personal account (available in audio and text) of her family’s painful experience in the Indian boarding schools,to which many American Indian children were taken by force, away from their families, to be assimilated into white culture. Dovie’s story and the associated lesson plan, available free and printable by clicking, exposes students to historical events that aren’t taught in most schools. It also touches on themes of cultural identity, inclusion and exclusion, and the power of forced education to oppress people.
After the introduction of this new perspective, you can encourage students to think critically about what they haven’t been taught. Get them talking with these questions:
What did you learn from this story that you didn’t know about the history of indigenous people in the U.S.?
Why do you think you never learned this in school?
Why do we need to explore this neglected part of history?
Why bring up stories that are painful or hard to listen to? What good does that do?
Whether you simply engage in classroom discussion or facilitate small-group presentations, exercises like this enable your students to explore more fully the history and experience of Native Americans. And as we prepare for Thanksgiving, that most American of holidays, lessons such as this will help students consider who’s been missing from the “American table” and how they can literally and metaphorically make a difference.
This Teacher-Educator Resource provides an easy to follow process in using storytelling to increase understanding across differences. It is a fun way to get to know each other, a comfortable way to address difficult topics and a simple and successful method for appreciating differences among group members. Sharing life stories allows us to see in new ways, grapple with new ideas, and grow into more respectful and compassionate people.
Use this resource with students from middle school through college or with members of your church or community group. The activities in the resource can be completed all at once or broken up over several meetings. A great way to build a team, handle issues associated with diversity, or discuss a recent conflict.
STORYTELLING: A TOOLKIT FOR BRIDGING DIFFERENCES AND CREATING COMMUNITY
This Resource provides an easy to follow process in using storytelling to increase understanding across differences and is:
a fun way to get to know one another
a comfortable way to address difficult topics
a simple and successful method for appreciating differences among group members
Sharing life stories allows us to see in new ways, grapple with new ideas, and grow into more respectful and compassionate people.
Use this resource with students from middle school through college or with members of your church or community group. The activities in the resource can be completed all at once or broken up over several meetings.
A great way to build a team, handle issues associated with diversity, or discuss a recent conflict.
In these warm and engaging story-excerpts professional Storyteller Olga Loya relates some of her life-story and her attempts to reconcile the two worlds and realities of ‘American’ and ‘Mexican American’. Audio-segments, story-text and classroom activities will engage students in exploring what it means be fluent in more than one culture at a time. The unit assists teachers to move beyond the Mexican-American experience to anyone who has been caught between two worlds and two identities. Use this unit to celebrate Hispanic Heritage month or to practice storytelling skills and to probe issues of difference and belonging.
Storyteller Olga Loya tells of her experience growing up Mexican American in Los Angeles, trying to choose between the Latino and Anglo cultures, and realizing that she might belong to even more than two cultures and that perhaps there was a way to live with all of them.
This is a perfect lesson plan to use with students while talking about immigration, issues of being bicultural, or about how to use personal stories to address an issue.
A great lesson especially for Language Arts and Social Studies classrooms!
(Need help to download the MP3 Story Excerpts? Click here for directions.)
About Olga Loya
Storyteller Olga Loya was captivated by the vivid stories her Mexican grandmother and father would tll. Absorbing all of their secrets and following the tendrils of memory that bind people and families, Olga fashioned and invented herself, out of her own substance and imagination, a stirring universe of creation. Growing up in a up in the barrio of East L.A. where family rituals and traditions were the center of her emotional life, the young Latina, performing improvisation as a girl, has mastered the vocabulary of artful storytelling. With her poetic eloquence Olga’s stories are an impassioned quest to keep alive not only the fabric of her family but the larger Latino culture, richly robed in folktales, ancient myths, and history.
The stories offered here—Immigrant History and Mom’s Story—come from Chinese American storyteller, Nancy Wangs longer story Bittersweet: A Chinese American Daughter’s Legacy. In this story, Wang explores the history of her own family, beginning with the immigration of her great-great-grandparents from China to the United States in the mid-nineteenth century.
This lesson plan uses two stories by Nancy Wang, a dancer, storyteller, playwright, and practicing psychotherapist. Wang studies ethnic dance and has written plays focused on Asian American themes. The stories offered here—Immigrant History and Mom’s Story—come from her longer story Bittersweet: A Chinese American Daughter’s Legacy. In this story, Wang explores the history of her own family, beginning with the immigration of her great-great-grandparents from China to the United States in the mid-nineteenth century. Through this story of her own family history, Wang uncovers the generations of discrimination against Chinese immigrants—both stealth and legally sanctioned—as she explores the relationship in her family, including her own relationship with her mother.
This unit comes with a teacher guide, text of stories & audio-download of stories as well as student activities.
To expose students to the experience of Chinese immigrants in the 19th century.
To explore the little-known history of exclusion of and discrimination against Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans during the 19th and 20th centuries.
To examine the connections between family history and personal development.
By the end of this lesson, each student will:
Be familiar with the tension among immigrants in California in the 19th and early-20th century.
Understand why marginalized groups might exploit and oppress each other rather than working together to achieve their rights.
Need help to download the MP3 Story Excerpts? Click here for directions.
About Storyteller Nancy Wang
Nancy Wang, together with her storyteller husband Robert Kikuchi-Ynogo founded Eth-Noh-Tec in 1982. This is is a kinetic story theater company based in San Francisco, weaving [tec] together distinctive cultural elements of the East and West [eth] to create new possibilities [noh]. Eth-Noh-Tec produces and performs contemporary presentations of traditional folktales from the many countries and cultures of Asia through storytelling, theater, dance, and music. Nancy Wang is available for performances in schools and colleges solo, or with her husband as Eth-NohTec.
Storyteller Susan O’Halloran weaves three short true stories of her life growing up in Chicago in the 1960s.
The three short stories offered here—“Davy Crockett,” “Us vs. Them,” and “The Dr. King March”—all explore Susan’s experience growing up in Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s when the relationship between blacks and whites in the United States were tense and changing quickly.
From when we humans first became aware, we began to paint our skin with colors and symbols of who we are. Were we telling the world “look at my skin to see who I am”, or saying that since appearances can change, then true identity must lie deeper within us? (more…)
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.
There are many forms of laughter: discomfort, joy, fear, amusement, sarcastic, etc. What type of laughter would you attribute to the students in the library? What dynamic did it set up between them and Diane? What are a few responses you would have had to the situation?
Invisibility is a much-desired attribute among superheroes. However, there are times when we, too, search for the cloak of concealment. When have you ever wanted to be “invisible”? In what situation and for what purpose?
The themes of belonging, identity, shame, and protecting one’s self can be found in the story of each human being. What other themes did you connect to in this story? Did the story help you to remember something that is or has happened to you?
Every Tongue Got to Confess by Zora Neale Hurston
African American Folk Tales for Young Readers by Richard Young and Judy Dockrey Young
Pink and Say by Patricia Polacco
African American/Black History
Education and Life Lessons
Family and Childhood
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
Hi, my name is Diane Macklin and this is a story, Just Hair.
If you’re driving down Route 82 in Hopewell Junction, New York in 199… in 1986, you would go past this ranch white house with green shutters, and you would think it was just a house. No indeed. This was the place where anyone with African roots could get their hair done by my mother. And that was me because we were the second black family to move into our neighborhood. My mother was the oldest of 12 children, and she did everyone’s hair. So, my hair was always done perfectly. There was no need in town for a Jet magazine or even anyone who could do anything with my hair. But it didn’t matter.
And as I grew up, well, things started to change a little bit. In high school, I no longer wanted the perfect parts, the braids, the ponytails. I watched this show on TV called The Facts of Life. My favorite show and there was this character Tootie. Now she would roll around on her rollerblades. She had these cute little pigtails and she had a brown complexion like me but she looked young. But then there was Blair and she had this flowing blond hair. And she was sophisticated; she was so much older. I wanted to be like Blair. So, one morning when my mom was doing my hair I said, “Mom, can you do my hair so it’s out. This is my ninth-grade year, Mom. I really want to wear my hair out.”
Now, my mom is from Mississippi. She’s from the South. She never says, “No.”
She goes on about her back. She goes on about this, that and the other until you’re saying, “No, Mom, that’s ok, that’s ok. Don’t, don’t worry about it.”
But she looked at me. “No.” I thought maybe she had a bad night at work. Maybe she woke up on the wrong side of the bed. That was okay because I could wait her out. I did wait a couple of weeks.
“Mom, I was thinking that maybe you could do my hair so it’s out today.”
But, again, she looked. “No.”
Now, I’m in high school, ninth grade and I ride a bus. It takes a while to get to school. I knew that if I took my hair out on the bus, and remembered where she had parted it, how she had braided it (whether it was over or under), I could take out my hair on the bus and put it back. She’ll never know.
So, one morning I got on the bus and I scooted down in the seat and started to take out my hair. Now, my friend across from me saw what I was doing and she just watched, and watched. And then we pulled up at our high school. Now always in high school, you did not go inside until the bell rang. Whether it was snow, sleet, hail, rain, everyone stood outside the building until the bell rang. But as soon as the bus pulled up and stopped, I stood up. And I heard, “Aah!” ’Cause back then no one had seen hair like mine, this rich hair, out because you didn’t even see it on TV. You didn’t even see it on commercials, and I felt like a million dollars.
I even had my own music playing, my own soundtrack, ’cause as I walked on the bus everyone just followed me. “Uuh!”
And I was going, “Oom, aah, and, Oom, aah!” I just felt… I had never felt like that before actually. And I struck a pose before I got off the bus, and they just sat there staring. They couldn’t believe it. I walked off the bus and then, who0om, everyone parted like the Red Sea and my friends came over.
“Can I touch your hair? Can I touch your hair?”
“Are your hands clean?”
And all day, I rode this cloud nine. And then, towards the end of the day, though, I had to go to the library to get a book out for research purposes, and I saw that there were some lower-class rooms from the middle school. They were visiting. They hadn’t seen my hair. So, I walked in, I struck a pose, and they no longer stared at their teacher. They stared at me.
“Yeah! They never saw hair like this.”
I walked in and then I heard, “Ah, whoo, whoo, whoo, ha!”
It wasn’t quite what I was expecting. Then the whole class broke out in laughter. Then I started to hear the words. “Afro Puff. Brillo Pad.”
They were talking about my hair. And there were other names, that, even now, I don’t want to repeat.
I couldn’t remember what I went in that library for but I wasn’t going to care. I went to the shelf, picked up a book, checked it out, walked out, had my head up high, looked at them, so they knew they didn’t get me.
But as soon as I left that library, my head dropped. On that bus, I remembered how she parted it. I turned my head a little to the window because, you know, how you do sittin’ down, it’s easier. A few tears fallin’ down. I went inside. It was as if I never took my hair out.
And I decided, I was going to wear an invisible armor and from that day on, I did. I pr… constructed an armor that you could not see me. Worked so well that, one day I was at the grocery store, and I was juggling more groceries than I needed to in my arms and there was a woman and her daughter. Her daughter looked, and young people can see past the invisible armor. They have a special vision. She saw that if she moved her groceries up, on the conveyor belt, I could put mine down. That’s what that young lady did. But the mother turned around and, well, I had my invisible armor on and she couldn’t see me, because she took her arm and she moved those groceries back in place, so I could not put my groceries down. The young lady, she turned beet red. She looked embarrassed. I tried to let her know it was okay because she didn’t know, I was wearing my armor. I wore it for many years and then one day, I was in that store and I heard someone comin’ up behind me. And this time I was smart; I did have a cart.
“Young lady, young lady.” But no one talked to me in the store.
“Young lady, young lady.” But no one talked to me in store.
I turned around. There was a woman with a rich, mahogany complexion like mine.
“Do you know where you’re from?”
“No! Where you’re from in Africa?”
My school didn’t teach us anything about Africa. And even during Black History Month, there was maybe a book in the library, on a shelf, but that was about it.
“You need to find out where you’re from ’cause when I saw you, I said, ‘She looks like a Mandingo warrior woman.’ Do you know that the Mandingo have warrior women?”
I didn’t know anything about Mandingo. I didn’t even know what to say. I was speechless.
“You need to find out where you’re from?”
And she turned the corner. And I stood there for a moment absorbing what she told me and then I went to find her ’cause, clearly, she knew more than I did. And she was gone. I couldn’t find her anywhere.
And to this day, I feel like she was a little angel, came to send me a message because now I could take off that invisible armor. And I now have as my defense, as my weapon of choice, to love, to love through story, as a storyteller.
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…)
Hello. My name is Sheila Arnold. And when I was in third grade, in 1972, I integrated my elementary school, Masonville Elementary, over in Annandale, Virginia. It wasn’t a difficult integration. We didn’t have protest outside of our doors. And even the teachers that didn’t like me, well they soon were got rid of. One of my teachers didn’t want me to be in the spelling bee because I was black but she didn’t last longer than the year. And my parents also covered so much for me. Actually, the classmates that I had and I got along very well. We were really good friends. And we all liked each other…except Lea.
Now, Lea, well Lea, was not liked by any of us as classmates because she was different. And we didn’t really like different. Lea… Lea didn’t have the, the right clothes because they would be a little bit too small on her and sometimes she would wear things that that didn’t fit or she didn’t, didn’t always look the best. And sometimes, I just have to be honest, she didn’t even have a real lunch box like the rest of us had. So, she was different and that was just Lea. You know, it wasn’t really kind of us at all. And we treated her different and we joked on her and teased her. But all of us did it, including me.
By the time we got to my fourth grade year, we had become such good friends, that we made nicknames for each other. I loved the nicknames. One day, we all gathered outside at recess and Jimmy, one of my friends, said he had a new nickname for me. I was thrilled. So we gathered everybody together and then he told me my new nickname. He said, Shelia, your new nickname is…” the “n” word. You know, the one that rappers say sometimes. I was delighted. It was a great name because I didn’t know what it meant. And so I was excited about it. I couldn’t wait to go home and tell my mom about this new nickname. I got on with it, “Mom, I have a new nickname. It is…” the “n” word. (You know, the one that rapper say.) And my mom went, “Oh, baby.” And then she told me what it meant. She told me it meant that you were lower than the dirt underneath someone’s feet. I, I couldn’t understand. I couldn’t understand why Jimmy, my friend, why would he call me that name!
The next day I went back to school. Recess came and Jimmy gathered everybody around again to call me my nickname. This time I knew what it meant. And I also realized Jimmy knew what it meant as well. So when he called me that nickname, I ran away from the group, ran into the side door of the building and into the bathroom and closed myself in the stall. And I just cried, “No one will ever be my friend. No one will ever be my friend. No one ever will like me.”
And then I heard something. Someone said, “I’ll be your friend, Sheila.” It was Lea, the very Lea I had teased and joked. She said, “I’ll be your friend.” And I came out of that bathroom stall.
Well, it was four years later that I was at Poe Middle School and I was with some of the same classmates I had before. I’d been gone for a while with my father to Germany and Rhode Island (my father was in the military) and I was finally back home. I was really excited to be back with some of my classmates, back in the middle school. And, though, I did really learn, truthfully, I learned really quickly that, although I was back in school with the same people, some of them were not the same way and we weren’t necessarily friends anymore. I learned in middle school that most of us were just trying to impress each other. And others us, and others of us, we were just trying to survive.
I didn’t really know where I fit, having been gone for a little while, so I decided to become everybody’s friend. That’s kind of how I was referred to. I wasn’t real popular but at least I knew everybody. Jimmy… Jimmy on the other hand, he was one of those just trying to survive life.
Jimmy had made some unwise decisions and those unwise decisions came because of what his life at home was like. You see, Jimmy’s family was going through a divorce. And in a, in the community I lived in, the suburbs I lived in… with two parent families and always together. The kid going through a divorce, they weren’t really appreciated. And they were looked at as, “Don’t get close to that one there.” Plus Jimmy was starting to smoke and “No one like them,” quote, unquote. And then he was even seen drinking beer. Those wise, unwise decisions made him one of those kids that people stopped hanging around. He went into that “other group” of kids. The ones, kind of, going down, “Going down,” as they would say. But Jim was trying to, trying to make some decisions.
In the beginning of our eighth grade year, we decided, well, we ran for student council. And some of you may have done that. So, we ran for student council and I decided I would run for treasurer. Jimmy decided he would run for president. It didn’t take me long to figure out that this was a popularity contest. And I was not a popular one but I hung in there. On that day that we gave our speeches… the presidents went first. Jimmy was the last to stand up to go. You should have seen him. He was dressed with his slacks on, his nice button-down shirt, his hair slicked back. He looked nice. He started to walk up, head up, going to give his speech. But the moment he started walking, all the kids booed him. His head, immediately went down. I knew, I knew what that felt like and I knew the look that went on his face. I remembered it from elementary school. And I stood up and I said, “Leave him alone! Give him a chance to talk!” Everybody was quiet for a minute but it was only a minute and then all that laughter and all their teasing turned right back to me.
I stood there and I said, “Everyone has a cha… everyone should have a chance to be heard. Everyone! Let him talk!” Well, the students gave him a look and they quieted a bit. But Jimmy gave me a look. I remembered that look. It was the same look I gave Lea so long ago. Well, Jimmy and I did not win in the student council. But we did win our friendship through forgiveness.
One day an angry black teenage girl – Sheila – stormed into her History Class and demanded to know why she had never heard about black inventors. Her favorite teacher, who happened to be white, was faced with a decision, but in making that decision an entire classroom of students was changed and history was given more relevance.
Was Sheila right in demanding to be taught more about people in her heritage? Why or why not? Should her teacher have changed her curriculum? Why or why not?
What is an activist? How do you think you can be an activist in your community?
Have you ever read a book that made you want to learn more about its subject, or moved you to make a difference? What was that book and what did it encourage you to do?
What is your heritage? Make a list of the people from your heritage that you have learned about in school. Compare your list with other students. Who do you know on their list? Choose someone from another student’s list who you do not recognize and research them.
Lazarus and the Hurricane: The Freeing of Rubin ‘HurricaneCarter by Sam Chalton and Terry Swinton. About a young man who finds a book that “calls” out to him, and through a series of letters and visits helps to free a wrongly jailed man.
The Black Book by Middleton A. Harris, Morris Levitt, Roger Furman, Ernest Smith and Bill Cosby. This is the actual book that Sheila read and is available in bookstores.
50 American Heroes Every Kid Should Meet by Dennis Denenberg
African American/Black History
Education and Life Lessons
Family & Childhood
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
Hello, my name is Sheila Arnold. I have to give you two names: Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. Those were the only two people, the only two black people I ever learned about in my elementary and middle school years in the 1970s and 1980s. How was it! But somewhere around the beginning of my high school years, in 1979 or so, I began to look for my people. I don’t really, know truthfully, why that, was the trigger for that but I think it’s because I started paying attention to the news.
I can remember sometime early in my 10th grade year, I think about 1980 or so, I went over to the March on Washington to ask for Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday to be a national holiday. I remember that myself and some of my classmates we skipped school, got on some buses, and some subways, (I lived in Annandale, Virginia, which is a suburb of Washington D.C.) and we got over to Washington D.C. I remember that, that the mall, the Washington National Mall, was just filled with all these black people. I’ve never seen anything like that before. And I, I heard every word, every speech; I felt it does come all into me. It was wonderful. And then Stevie Wonder got up and started singing. We all sing with them. “Happy Birthday to ‘im. Happy Birthday to ‘im. Happy Birthday. Happy Birthday to you. Happy Birthday to ’im. Happy Birthday.” We loved it.
Well, I started learning more and more around that time of my life. I remember, that there were times that I started looking at other parts of African-American history. One of the things that was happening is my mom was introducing me to other arts and plays and things like that. That was when I found “For Colored Girls That Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf” into Ntozake Shange, the play that was in Washington D.C.. Oh! She got me a copy of that script. And then we went to go see “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” And we went to go see “Bubblin’ Brown Sugar,” about the Harlem Renaissance artist and the musicians. And I was in love with learning more. I had been working as a library school assistant since I started high school and I worked in one of my classes at study hall and then whenever I had a free moment, I was in that library. And while I was working in the library, I began to come across other African-American writers I never knew anything about. I already knew about poet, the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and, of course, I knew about God’s Trombones writer, James Weldon Johnson, because we presented their pieces at the church that I went to. But when I came across The Anthology by Arnold Adolph, I was introduced to Gwendolyn Brooks. And I met, I, I met Nikki Giovanni, Cotton Candy On A Rainy Day. Ah, that was one of my favorites. And James Baldwin…that one even got banned from my high school and my mom went and bought it for me. It was great.
So I started learning all of these things but it was like a, a quiet learning. And although a fire begun, it was a quiet fire. One that, one that had to do with just reading and maybe sharing with people at the black church that I attended. And sometimes doing some pieces for my forensics team at school but very quiet. Well, one day I was bored and I was looking for something to read because that’s what I do, when I’m bored. I was looking for something to read and I usually do. I started looking to my parents’ things. Went through my mom’s stash, ya, nothing. Went to my dad’s always cluttered, never clean, room but always filled with books. And I started looking. And I came across a book. I came across a book that shocked me. The Black Book. I started looking at it and I could put it down. First, I was disgusted and just appalled at some of the images that were there. They were, they were pictures of, of black bodies hanging from trees, of men smiling as they saw what was being, a person that was beaten on the back, the welts on their back. A group of white gentlemen posing for the picture proudly as they surrounded the smoldering body of a black man that had been burnt. As visceral as those pictures were and as disgusting, in the book I also found great amusement and delight. Colorful ads for skin lightening. Cures, using voodoo charms and Hexis. That was kind of cool, some of the things they used to do. I was amazed by this book and I couldn’t put it down.
Then, I got to the middle of the book and I found patents. P-A-T-E-N-T-S. Patents. Yes, patents. And patents, I knew, I knew what patents were. Patents were what you did if you made something. If you were an inventor. And I looked at them. Patents. You mean, black people have been inventors? Oh, I was hot now. Mm, hmm. All that fire that was a small little campfire, it rose up with me and it was a bonfire, wildfire. I was angry and I went back to the beginning of the black book and I started looking through it again. But I had new eyes this time. My eyes were feeding. What information I had not learned?!
Well, the next day that fire had not gone away at all. I arrived at school with the book in my hand. I couldn’t wait to get to my favorite class, history class. And I couldn’t wait to be able to talk to my teacher, my favorite teacher, Mrs. Elliott, she was my history class teacher. She also happened to be a white teacher. I walked into the classroom. I was the epitome of mad, black, teenage girl. Most people hadn’t even seen nothing like that in my school. There were 13 blacks at my school out of 2,000 students. I walked in that classroom. Other classmates would just walk in along with me. But I walked in. I had that book clasped around my chest. I walked in, walked right up to her desk, slammed the book down on her desk, and said “Why aren’t you teaching us this?”
All the air went out of the room. My classmates were completely quiet. They had never seen anything like this. I was angry and I demanded an answer. I had no idea what to say but I knew somebody better tell me something. Well, unbeknownst to me, Mrs. Elliott had been taking black history classes every summer for the last few summers. She was fascinated with black history. And she had a deep desire to teach it at the school but she had no clue how she, a white teacher, was going to teach black history at a predominantly white school when she would only see black students every once in a while. And so, she looked at me and she said, “Do you really want to learn this?”
“Yes I do.”
“OK then.” And right then, right then, at that very moment, Miss Elliott changed everything in her classroom and she began to teach black history. She brought in videos and images. And she had us look through all kinds of books and hear different things. This was completely different. Everybody in my class was excited because they had never heard it either. I was the only black student in that class but we all were learning. Miss Elliott even brought my mother in, and my mom talked about segregation. She talked about how she had to drink from a colored fountain. The kids looked at my mom, my mom who most of them knew, they couldn’t believe that she’d had to do that. That she’d had to go all the way into Washington D.C. just to go to an all black school. That she had had to go to the bathrooms, colored only bathrooms.
It changed all of us. But Miss Elliott didn’t just stop there. She started teaching all kinds of cross-cultural things. We learned more about other cultures than we had ever learned before. And we were a group that was eager. And as classmates, we couldn’t wait to learn more about diversity. It was amazing. Well, one of the girls came in and she had found out that they were killing chimpanzees in one of the countries in Africa. Immediately, we all got on board. We contacted the World, World…I can’t remember it…WWF and World Wide Wildlife Federation…I think it was World Wildlife Federation. We contacted them immediately and we said, “Can we do something?” Well, right then we started a fundraiser, we went and visited with the head offices in, in Washington D.C. It was exciting and we became burgeoning activists. Wow! It as an incredible year but Miss Elliott didn’t stop with our year. She kept right on teaching for as long as I knew her. Teaching all that she could about all cultures.
I have to tell you, I was a raging fire when I walked into that room. I had been a campfire and I turned into wild wildfire and I was ready to burn everything in my path and hurt as many people as I could along with it. But Miss Elliot, she was a great teacher and she tended that fire. And she, she helped that fire to grow in the right places. And she made sure that the fire could live but that it wouldn’t burn wildly. Most of all, she ensured the fire would never go out.
A frantic call from Sheila Arnold’s son during his freshmen year in college turns into a moment to remember all that she had to teach him about growing up black, and, in turn, all he had also learned about crossing bridges in spite of people’s perceptions. (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.
Motoko tells a story about her own experience of sexual harassment in Japan, how she was trapped into silence imposed by her culture, and how storytelling helped her break the silence and heal herself.
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:My-Long-Hair
As a teenager in Japan, Motoko had times when she did not feel safe. What kept her from feeling safe?
Do you feel safe? What precautions do you take for your own safety?
What can each of us do to help others feel safe and live safely?
Like a Lotus Flower: Girlhood Tales from Japan by Motoko. (Audio CD,www.folktales.net; 2009)
Unbroken Thread: An Anthology of Plays by Asian American Women edited by Roberto Uno
Family and Childhood
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Hi, my name is Motoko. As a teenager growing up in Osaka, Japan, I was not pretty or popular but my hair was. Yes. I used to have this long, shiny, silky, black hair, straight down to my waist. So much of it I would obsessively brush it to an arresting sign. During the school day, the rules dictated that I had to keep it in a single long braid. As soon as the school let out, I would untie my braid and the shake it loose into a simmering cascade. What a glorious feeling!
I was a good, studious, student. By the time I was in the 10th grade, I was attending what we call, juku, a cram school. After the regular high school, three nights a week, for extra math and English lessons to prepare myself for the college entrance exams. On those days, I did not get to let my hair down until much later because those classes did not finish until 9 o’clock at night. Then I would take the commuter train home, get home about 10 o’clock, eat dinner, and do my homework. One night I was on my way home, as usual the commuter train was jam packed with business men and laborers, some drunken and boisterous, others tired and sullen. A few of them leered at me, a girl in the school uniform with long hair in a single braid. I sat with my knees together with a heavy book bag on my lap.
By the time I finally got off the train, the crowd had thinned a little. I walked toward the bicycle lot at the back of the station away from the blaring music and the neon signs of karaoke bars and pachinko parlors. I found my bike and dropped my heavy bag in the red wire basket attached in front of me. With relief, I untied my braid and swung my head letting the spring breeze cool down my scalp. “Nice hair,” a man’s guttural voice from right behind, startled me. I spun around into reeky fumes, so hot, drunk breath. A stranger’s sneering too close, sallow cheeks and a stubby chin, a dark green shirt. The next thing he was grabbing my waist pulling me hard against him. No, I did not scream. I was too stunned to even make a sound. The whole thing seemed somehow not so real, like a scene from a silent movie. I struggled to free myself and the man suddenly let loose. I staggered back and bumped into my bike. The bike fell and I fell on top of it, scraping my leg against the pedal. My books are scattered everywhere. Then the man suddenly started to laugh hysterically as if he had never seen anything so funny. I ride at my bike and without looking back pedaled as fast as I could. When I finally reached my house, I realized that I had not breathed the whole time. I got off my bike and bent down to breath as if I had just sprinted a mile. My heart was beating so fast, in my head, I could not hear anything else. No, the man did not follow me. I only had two bruises and a long scratch on my leg. My blouse had come untucked, so I tucked it in.
I was OK. Nothing happened. I opened the door. The glaring fluorescent light and the smell of the dinner and the loud noise from the TV in the living room overwhelmed me. “Tadaima, I’m home,” I said softly, suddenly realizing that my throat was tight.
My mother came out of the kitchen and said, “What happened to you?!”
I suddenly realized that, I remembered that, I had left all my books scattered around in the bicycle lot. With trembling voice, I said, “Oh, some weird guy tried to grab me and I ran away. I’m ok,” as nonchalantly I could.
My mother looked on me and said, “Look at your leg! You are bleeding! Otōsan, please come here.” Now Otōsan literally means, father, but that’s how my mother used to address her husband.
My father came hurrying out of the living room. “What happened?”
“Some man attacked her on the way home,” my mother explained.
“Yeah, but I’m ok. Nothing happened. I just have a scratch. See!” And as I was showing him, tears came to my eyes. I hastily wiped them away.
My mother looked anxious, “Should we call the police?”
“No, we don’t call the police,” my father said with a grim expression on his face.
“But why not? He might have followed her. It’s very dangerous.”
“No. She’s ok. If you call the police, people will talk.” He looked angry. Was he angry at me? He looked at me and said, “Motoko, you should have been more careful. It’s your fault, coming home this late, swinging your long hair.” I blinked. Was he saying that I was to blame? My father scuffled back into the living room and turned the volume up on TV. My mother sighed, fussed over me, gave me some bandages to put on my leg. Then I went upstairs to the bathroom and I wrenched. No one ever spoke of this incident again.
The next day I went and got a haircut. I never wore my hair long again. I never forgave my father either until a few years ago when I started telling this story. After that incident, there was a long period of time when he and I just did not talk much. Then I moved away to go to college and eventually immigrated to the United States. When I became a storyteller and started sharing my life stories, I discovered that many women in the United States have had a similar experience to mine. By listening to those women, I learned how sharing helps us heal. And it takes honesty, courage, and wisdom to speak up for ourselves and not be cowed into silence. Telling this story also made me realize that, my father’s gruff voice directed at me, was actually his way of acting out his anger at the man in the green shirt. And his frustration for not being able to protect me. In any culture, storytelling is what breaks the silence.
As Motoko raises her Japanese son in the U.S., she is reminded of prejudice against Koreans in her own country, and discovers the importance of the language we use to create the world we live in. (more…)
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…)
Can a teenager make an impact in a world full of injustice? Jasmin looks back at the roots of her involvement in social justice issues when she joined the cause to free the young Mexican-American artist, Manuel Salazar, who sat on death row falsely accused of killing a police officer.
What forces in Jasmin’s life caused her to care about the young prisoner on Death Row named Manuel Salazar? Who played an important role in helping her to volunteer in the ways she did? Why did she choose Art and Theater as her vehicle for action?
The play Jasmin and her group created encouraged people to sign a petition to support Manuel’s Freedom. What technical advancements exist today that were not available in the 1990’s that could help in creating civic action and discourse?
This legal case had two clearly different narratives depending on whose perspective was being considered. Can you compare and contrast these different perspectives? How do we decide what’s “true”?
Education and Life Lessons
Family and Childhood
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
Hello, my name is Jasmin Cardenas.
“He shot a cop!”
“No, he didn’t. It says the gun was in the officer’s hands when it went off. Some forensics test shows that.”
“Then why did he run, Jazz?”
This was my friend Mari and me going back and forth about this young Mexican-American guy. His name was Manuel Salazar and it was 1993. He was on death row and we were sophomores in high school. We were trying to decide if we should tell his story at this young Latino leadership event. Mari wanted to do a merengue dance.
“Come on, Jazz! I think we have enough guys to do a bomb-diggety-sexy merengue!”
“I know, but this guy’s innocent and he’s on death row! We should tell his story. Besides, this would be totally different from anything everybody else is gonna do.”
Our friend and fellow club member, Ali, had met Manuel’s lawyer. She told Ali, that he had international support for his freedom. That there was people from all the world behind him. And that, and that he had been represented by a shady lawyer. This guy who had totally rigged his first trial.
“C’mon, you guys, we should do this. We could, we could tell his story and, and people would be amazed. He was just driving in a car with other Latino and black kids, minding his own business. The cops stopped him for no reason. And then they beat him. And, and now he’s on death row! I mean, we should interview the lawyer. Tell his story.”
“That’s such a downer, Jazz. Why don’t we tell the story of the Taino Indians and we could dance and get costumes! That’s awesome!”
“You guys, this could have been any one of us in the car with our friends.”
Just that summer before, my brother, Favian, and I had been driving down the street and I saw a friend of mine walking down the road. And I laid on the horn to get her attention. When we got through intersection, this car in front of us, a white Caddy, stopped, all crazy about it. And his older white guy, in slacks and a white shirt, came out and was yelling at us, raging mad. He was F this, and F that. You stupid Mexicans, (we’re actually Colombian), Favian started opening the window to explain. And the guy was having none of it. He punched my brother in the nose. Broke his nose. I couldn’t believe it. We, we, we put out a police report. And my parents took him to the Chicago Children’s Hospital and they did nothing. He got away with it.
“This could have been ANY one of US!” I told my girlfriends.
I got them to agree that at least, at least we’d go talk to the lawyer and learn a little more. So, we went to her office.
It was in the Pilsen neighborhood, in Chicago, 18th Street and, uh, Blue Island. There was a big sign, this banner that said, “For the defense of Manuel Salazar,” hanging outside. We got inside and the room was full of people working the phones, doing paperwork. The lawyer, Marlene Kamish, told us all about the case. She told us about how the official police report had stated that the car was suspicious because there were Negroes and Hispanics in the car together. How the, the, the, Manuel had a, a, a gun in his gym bag and, and he was nervous because it was unregistered but he had been target practicing that day. So, he ran from the car with the gym bag. And how the officer chased him. And when he realized he had nowhere to go, he threw the gym bag, with a gun still inside, over the fence so that the cop wouldn’t get the wrong idea. And turned around and surrendered. But then the cops started to beat him. Even as Manuel was saying, “I give, I give!”
And how Manuel had acted in self-defense. The autopsy report shows that there was gunpowder in the officer’s hands, proving that the gun was in his hands when it went off. It was starting to feel like a movie. My friends and I were sitting on the edge of our seats, listening silently. Then, Manuel ran after the gun went off. He ended up at his friend’s house. He was unrecognizable from the beating. They said he looked like Frankenstein. Then the police department, put a “shoot to kill” order out on his life. Manuel was just 18 years old and scared. He ran to Mexico. And in Mexico, he was sleeping one night, when these masked men came and kidnapped him. They dragged him back to Illinois and couldn’t, put him on trial. This violated an extradition treaty between the United States and Mexico. But still, he was put on trial. Meanwhile, he had no idea that his lawyer had been working for the same police department of the officer who had died.
That lawyer failed to represent him and bring in witnesses and even, he didn’t even show that critical evidence of the toxicologist report that showed that the officer had a high blood alcohol level, proving that he was drunk. Manuel was convicted and sentenced to death. And while on death row, he found out that that shady lawyer had been disbarred. No longer allowed to practice. Marlene said that the British parliament, Amnesty International, even the Pope, was behind the support to free Manuel Salazar.
She showed us paintings. He had started painting while in prison. He had been doing all of this self-taught. And he painted this beautiful piece called, “My Brother’s Keeper.” My friends and I all were teary eyed. We were convinced we would tell his story.
We decided to use the facts of his case and we created a play. That and his paintings and his poetry. And we used our bodies as, as characters like the police officers and, and, and the narrator, and, like, the prison bars. And we created a dream sequence where we would show how he ended up on death row. The final line in the play, the last line, was from his poetry his paintings. “Let us stop blinding ourselves to the suffering from others and take the time to care. For I ask you, to ask yourself; Acabo no soy yo el guardian de mi hermano?..Am I or am I not the keeper of my brother?”
The Latino youth leadership organization loved it. We got a standing ovation. Better yet, Marlene Kamish, the lawyer, loved it. She organized new performances for us and we went everywhere with his paintings. We toured public events, private events, Latino events, youth events. We even marched in the Mexican Independence Day Parade with Manuel’s mom.
I got more involved. I started volunteering for his case, making phone calls, stuffing fliers. I became pen pals with Manuel. And over the course of a year and a half, we toured his, his production, “Reflections: the story of Manuel Salazar,” everywhere his paintings went. And I even got to know him. I visited him in the Pontiac Correctional Center with Marlene. But as things go, senior year hit, and with school, homework, after school clubs, practice for basketball and soccer, and then college applications, I just kind of lost track with Marleen and with Manuel’s case.
But then, my junior year in college, Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, a high school predominantly Mexican-American, on the southwest side of the city, in Pilsen, contacted my university. They were looking to add an afterschool drama program. And my professor said that I should take it on as a project. The kids were fantastic. We had so much fun together and when we were nearing the end of the afterschool program, they wanted to perform. So, I suggested “Reflections” and they loved what it was about. It got me thinking, what had happened to Manuel?
My mom helped me locate Marlene, the lawyer. She was so surprised to hear from me. She said that Manuel had gotten his second trial and he had won and he was, in fact, free. She gave me his phone number. I called him right away. His voice was so soft spoken. He was so calm. He was so happy to hear from me. He told me that he was still living with his mom in Joliet but that the police department was harassing him and his family. They were angry that he’d been released. They, uh, they were harassing so much, that he was thinking of moving out of state. He also told me that his paintings were, were being looked at by people from the Art Institute. I told him about the play. I invited him to come see the show he had never gotten to see. He didn’t hesitate. My insides were exploding!
The day of the performance, I sat in the audience – super anxious, feeling like a teenager again. But afterwards, Manuel’s eyes were so warm and inviting. He was telling me about how much it meant to him, all that we had done. I couldn’t believe it. He was sitting there in the seats of my university with a buttoned-up collar shirt and a big sweater, hiding his muscular body from working out in prison all those years. And yet, his presence was so quiet. “Gracias, Jasmin. I can’t believe you did all this. This is something else. Something else.”
I might not be the British Parliament and I might not be the Pope but I know that what we did mattered. And to Manuel, while he was standing behind prison bars, what we all did to support him made all the difference. So, yeah, I am my brother’s keeper.
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.
The small Southern town where Carmen’s parents live is a-buzz with political acrimony. Carmen’s mother, Esther, a spunky octogenarian–– and Cuban refugee–– regards her right to vote a hard-won, American privilege. As she finishes casting her vote, she is more than happy to remind her husband, Carlos, of “their views” on local elections. Carlos’ reaction to his wife’s enthusiasm is a hysterical and poignant civics lesson for all who are lucky enough to be casting their vote at Rocky Springs Elementary School that day. (more…)
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!
This story is a piece of history from the 1950’s. It tells of affordable housing and living in a particular neighborhood and gives some insight into the different ethnic groups that make up some of our communities. (more…)
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…)
After dreading spending the summer with her strong willed grandmother, a young Earliana learns the true strength in “black beauty”. She finds that no matter how different we may look, we all have the capacity to feel and, more importantly, be kind to one another.
Within a family, how do the (significant) adults teach a child to ‘look at’ or ‘see’ the world? In this family how did the grandmother teach the child? How did Miss Mattie teach the child? Might the understanding have a different outcome?
In the story there was emphasis on the color of the child’s face and neck, and on the contrasting colors of Miss Mattie’s skin. Is this a story about perceptions of skin color and race or is this a story about family?
Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America by Charisse Jones
African American/Black History
Education and Life Lessons
Family and Childhood
Hi, my name is Earliana McLaurin. And this is an excerpt from a st… uh, a larger story entitled Miss Mattie’s Story: From Darkness into the Light.
Uh, the story takes place in Lockport, Illinois circa 1995, so that would make me 11 at the time. Uh, I was staying with my grandmother during the day because my mom, she worked. She worked during the day. My grandmother, at the time, was knocking about, I dunno, 65, strong as an ox and mean as a bull if you got on her bad side.
I remember that day was a hot June morning. I know… I remember it was hot because we’d been outside all morning.
First, we put the laundry “on the line” complete with old school wooden clothes pins. Then we cleaned off the lot next to her house that she owned. And then we were weeding the garden behind hers house… her house when I just, I had to stop.
“I, I’m getting thirsty, I said, then I handed her the shovel.
She had on this big, uh, sunhat and I remember she looked up and she said, “Well, I suppose it is getting’ hot. And it is about lunchtime,” and she walked in the house.
“Thank you,” I whispered and I followed behind her.
Now at my granny’s house, you couldn’t sit down for a meal until you “washed up” and this wasn’t just like washing your hands. You had to wash your hands, you had to wash your face and you had to wash your neck, which was a big bone of contention with both my mother and my grandmother, like, my entire life.
If you can’t tell, my, uh, skin on my neck is a little darker than the rest of my body. My grandmother, however, interpreted this as dirt and has been —- bent on lightening the skin around my neck. So much so that every time we would get into it, I’d just say, “Maybe it’s just that way.”
You know, ha, as a kid, I never thought about, oh, this is darker. It must be bad. I gotta get rid of it, you know. You know, I’d always considered my skin to be brown – beautiful shades of light and dark brown. Yet that day, before my butt even hit the chair, my granny checked the back of my neck.
“Oh, after we eat, I think we’re gonna walk on down at Thelma’s to see how her tulips are doing.” My grandmother said, making her famous tuna salad sandwiches.
Now this was good news. Miss Thelma was my… one of my grandmother’s friends. She lived down the street and she had converted her garage into a candy store. So, naturally, I was excited to go.
“Well, you know, we got to swing on past Mattie’s first.”
Uh, Miss Mattie. Miss Mattie’s house, I was not excited to visit. Miss Mattie was my grandmother’s best friend, who lived, uh, directly across the street. Earlier that year, Miss Mattie had suffered a stroke. And so, one side of her face was kinda, kinda droopy. And so much so, that when she smiled, only one side of her face moved. And, uh, to an 11-year-old, I’m sorry, that was just kinda creepy, like Halloween mask creepy. So, I did my best and I tried not to stare. — forbid, I get caught by my grandmother, starin’. So that day, uh, we, you know, finished up lunch, and my grandmother grabbed Miss Mattie’s plate, which she always did. I never understood it. Miss Mattie could walk; she could use her hands so I didn’t understand why we had to always take her a plate.
But, you know, like we did almost every day, we make a short trip across the street to her house. My granny calls for her, she comes to the door, and I remember looking up and looking at the left side of her face and thinking, “Man, she’s dark but kinda pretty.”
Because, see, on the left side, Miss Mattie’s face was this smooth unblemished dark chocolate color. And it was always a little shiny, not like greasy, but like, like the chocolate swirls you see in candy bar ads on TV. But I also remember that day, looking up at the right side of Miss Mattie’s face and all I could see was the droopy Halloween mask. So, of course, I immediately put my face down. You know, we were almost to Miss Thelma’s. You know, it’s just right down the street.
And I hear my grandmother say, “Oh, we got tuna today with some tomatoes from my garden.”
I’m thinking, “Why is she’s so happy?”
And I look up, I chance a look, and she has this great, big smile on her face. Now this was sayin’ sumpin’ for my grandma. She only reserved this big smile for, like, Christmas and birthdays. So, I was confused. But, you know, I just kept my head down. She, you know, bid her goodbye and off we went down the street.
We walked about ten steps before my grandmother said, “Earliana LaTish McLaurin. You were starin’ again.
“I’m sorry!” I said, trying to keep up with her. “She just looks so weird.”
“Weird? Earliana, Mattie’s sick. She can’t help the way she look. It’s part of her sickness. Mattie’s, wha… still same old Mattie, uh, laughin’ and smilin’. As I recall, changed quite a few of your diapers when you were a baby.”
“But will she always look like that, I said.
“Well, it’s affecting her whole body now and her medicine is so expensive.”
“Oh, but her family helps her, right,” I said, because, you know, back then that’s what you did. Even if you weren’t related. Black families helped other black families.
And my grandmother, at this time… by this time, we had gotten to Miss Thelma’s and we were right in front of her gate. And she looked at me and she said, “Mattie ain’t got no family, baby. You know her. What little money she gets has to cover her medicine and all her bills. Don’t you worry about old Mattie. She got plenty of family. Me, you, de folks at church. Mattie goin’ be just fine.”
She handed me a dollar and went on around back to Miss Thelma’s flower garden. I went over to candy store and I remember just standing there, you know. Normally, I’d be poring over each candy. But that day, I remember just standing there, and thinkin’ about Miss Mattie because, see, you know, as an 11-year-old, huh, I couldn’t imagine being so sick and alone all the time. Every day. Every night. I remember going back and handin’ my, my grandmother the dollar and just tellin’ her I didn’t feel much like any candy.
Later that night, we were eatin’ dinner and Miss Mattie was still on my mind. My grandmother could tell because I was just pushing around my mashed potatoes.
And she said, “You, you okay, baby?”
And I said, “Yeah, I’m just thinking.”
And she said, “Well, when you done thinking, uh, you want to watch some Wheel of Fortune?”
And she started clearing up the dishes and the food. And I remember sitting up and droppin’ to the floor. I was like, “We, we’re not going to take Miss Mattie a plate?”
And she said, “Well, you know, I try to give Miss Mattie her space.”
“But, Granny! What if she’s hungry right now!”
You know, in my mind, how did I knew this information. It was like, if Miss Mattie didn’t have any family, then we were her people and, and we had to help. We had to.
“Well, you know, if Mattie was hungry, she’d call and.”
“What if she’s too sick to call, Granny? Why, she’s all by herself. I can take it over there. Let’s just take her plate.”
And I get up and I start to get a plate down from the cabinet. Now, don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t too happy about walkin’ in the dark in Lockport, Illinois in the mid-90s but I felt like Miss Mattie needed us more. So, you know, we get the plate and off we go. Mis…she called for her. Miss Mattie comes to the door. And this time, I remember looking her right in her face, right in her other worldly, chocolate, slightly droopy, chocolate face.
And I said, “Here you go, Miss Mattie. It’s meatloaf, mashed potatoes and green beans. I made sure Granny put some meat… some gravy on the meatloaf and the mashed potatoes because that’s the best. Ha, ha.”
Miss Mattie, not used to me sp… actually speaking, heh, sorta chuckled. And, you know, she said, “Why thank you, baby,” and turned to my grandmother.
You know, up until that moment, I had never even thought about it but I realized that beauty, beauty had to be more than just the color of my skin, you know. That as crazy as it sounds, Miss Mattie’s face was kind of like my neck. A little dark, maybe weird to some but it certainly didn’t need to be scrubbed away or hidden. Miss Mattie had always been perfectly nice to me. And after knowing how she struggled, and what she was going through, I could no more deny her beauty than I could her dignity as a human being.
The last thing I remember was handing her the plate, and puttin’ my head down, kinda looking at my granny ’cause I was just waitin’ for her to chastise me because, you know, you supposed to let the adults talk first. And I remember looking up, and all I saw was this great, big smile on her face. That same, big birthday smile. Except this time, it was just for me.
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…)
Nancy tells an excerpt from “A Window of Beauty,” a story inspired by the experiences of a young girl, her remarkable teacher and their secret art classes in the Terezin Concentration Camp in Czechoslovakia during World War II. It is a tale of courage, friendship and the power of artistic expression to sustain hope and light the way during the darkest of times. (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!”
Sadarri retells a story of heroism that her mother, Rose, remembered as a child. The story takes place in Holly Springs, Mississippi in the late 1920’s when Sadarri’s Uncle Carl was set to be lynched for “speaking out of turn”. This story is about the unlikely hero who saved the life of Carl Esko Lucas who was truly a Black man dead and resurrected from the dust. (more…)
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. .
A short story told by
Reflecting on her family, storyteller Linda Gorham raises powerful images in celebration of her ancestors in “I Am Somebody.” Told in a relatable and interesting manner, Linda easily engages the listener with her words.
From a proud and determined father to a strong and devoted mother to a dedicated and intelligent grandfather, Linda shares bits of her life and family with listeners. As the story continues, it is clear that family has made her who she is. It is clear that family is most important to her.
As we celebrate Black History this month, Linda Gorham reminds us that the gifts of our own family and family tree evoke gratitude, whatever our ethnicity or identity.
Take time to reflect upon your own family and values. As Linda states in her telling, “We are all a product of those who came before us, and we are the preparation for the future.”
Linda Gorham is an engaging storyteller who regales listeners with poignant stories of her life. She believes that there are no limits to what people can achieve. Storytelling to adults and children alike, Linda is drawn to the power of story. She enjoys the creativity involved in her work, and thrives on the challenge of storytelling.
Take a moment to be touched by this beautiful tribute to family: .
. I Am Somebody
For a print friendly version of the transcript, clickhere: I-Am-Somebody
I believe we all have a story to tell. We are all a product of those who came before us and we are the preparation for the future. I am somebody. And so is everyone else I know. As you listen to my story, I hope you are inspired to tell your own.
I am somebody.
I am the daughter of a man who believed that dinner was to be served at 6 p.m. sharp and every place setting was to have a fork, a knife, and a spoon, whether they were needed or not. My father would wake us up every morning on Saturdays and Sundays, by playing referrer, revelry. “It’s time to get up. It’s time to get up. It’s time to get up in the morning.” Try listening to that at 6:00 a.m. on the weekends. But my father believed that children should be productive and should get up early, have a good breakfast, and get on with their day.
He also believed that children were probably only one reason to be on the face of this earth and that was to get a good education, to go to college, and then to have a good career.
My father also believed that fried chicken and pizza should be properly eaten with a knife and a fork. Now, I can understand a deep-dish pizza but have you ever tried eating a chicken wing with a knife and a fork? In my house, there was something called the 1969 fried chicken rebellion. But that’s another story that I’ll tell you at another time.
My father told me his proudest moment was after I turned 18, and he took me to the polls to vote in my first national election. We had to get up early. We had to be there at 7:00 a.m. My father was always first in line. And that day we were too. And I will never forget the look on my father’s face when he stepped aside to let me, his oldest daughter, vote first. I will tell you I have never missed an election since.
I am somebody.
I’m the product of a woman who was a light skinned African-American who married a dark skinned African-American man, back in 1949. Now, black people have always known that we come in all shades and all colors but not quite then. And especially not with white people who thought that my parents’ union was an interracial marriage; something quite taboo and very rare back then. Well, I will tell you, it was a long time before I understood how hard this was on my parents, especially my light skinned mother when she would walk down the street holding the hands of her three brown skinned daughters. And it was even longer before I understood my mother’s disdain for people who judged her without ever getting to know anything about her.
I and somebody.
I’m the daughter of a career Army officer who graduated from officer’s candidate school in 1946. It was a proud day. He and five other African-Americans were among the graduating class. Well, that pride turned to utter disappointment when they learned that they would not be able to attend the graduation party because it was going to be held in an all-white officer’s club.
I am somebody.
I am the daughter of a woman who believed there were two keys to a successful marriage. Soft feet and long hair. OK, I’ve never had long hair but I’ve had soft feet for all 28 years of my marriage but it doesn’t matter. I have a wonderful husband. And we have two fine, young men as sons. And they’re full of intelligence, and creativity, and wit. And I can’t wait to see how our sons take on the world.
I am somebody.
I’m the niece of a woman who was a tireless, well-loved educator. And when she retired, an entire new wing was built on to her high school. And that wing was named after her.
I am somebody.
I’m the niece of a man who in 1952 won two gold medals in the Olympics in track: the 200 meter dash and the 400 meter relay. It was a proud moment when he came home to Jersey City, New Jersey and had a ticker tape parade. The first African-American man to ever have such an honor. And four years later, he went back to the Olympics and won a silver medal.
I am somebody.
I am the granddaughter of a matriarchal woman who was strong and proud and held her family together with good values. And during the one year that my sisters and I had to live with her, she made us take a teaspoon of cod liver oil, three times a week, in the wintertime. She said it would keep us healthy. Have you ever tasted cod liver oil? Swallowing it is horrific. I would rather chew on the head of a dead fish. But the worst part about it is, all during the day it keeps coming up as burps. You try to be in seventh grade, trying to make new friends, and burping cod liver oil. This was not pleasant.
But I am somebody.
I am the granddaughter of a Georgia man who had a white father and an African American mother. The mother was only 14 years old. Her family was forced to live on the father’s land as sharecroppers. It was not a consensual relationship. The mother died in childbirth and my grandfather’s father, well, he never acknowledged his responsibility as a father. And my grandfather was raised by, as they say, a village. And he only went to school until third grade. And he only went to school when there was no work to be done in the fields. But that man left Georgia. He went to New Jersey. He told us, he walked all the way to New Jersey. My grandmother said he took the train. And I believe the train because a train saved his life. Because my grandfather became a Pullman Porter on that train. And my grandfather, he learned by cleaning the, the that the train cars and by carrying the luggage and by listening to the conversation he learned about what it meant to be a family man.
And he turned out to be a fantastic father and an even better grandfather. And he taught himself to read as an adult. But this very proud, intelligent man, like so many other Pullman Porters was forced to endure being called, “George,” instead of his first name because the travelers refused to call him, “Sir.”
I am somebody.
I’m the granddaughter of another man, whom I don’t know much about, but I know he had a large family. I know he saved up to take his family to the circus and as they stood in line of the circus, he held his tickets up high and someone snatched the tickets and they never went to the circus. But I have a story to tell about him.
I am somebody.
I am the great, granddaughter of a full-blooded Mohawk Indian, whom I’m told, wore a red feather in her long, straight, jet black hair.
I am a product of a family who was intelligent and smart and witty and clever and creative. But a family who was limited in so many ways, will never know all of the potential they could have had, because they were not judged by their potential. They were judged by the color of their skin. But in spite of that, they did amazing things. And they and I are all related to and descended from people called many things African-American, Afro-American, Negro, black, colored, slave…and much, much worse.
Now, I don’t know all their stories but I know some. And I tell their stories when I can because that’s my past and I am creating my future. And I feel their pain. And I feel their angst and I feel their determination to survive. And I want to pass that on to my children.
And ironically enough, I am also the multi-generational granddaughter of Richard Stockton, proud signer of the Declaration of Independence, the very document that should have forbid slavery.
I am somebody.
Be moved by some of the other storytellers in our free line-up on our Showcase Page.
Misunderstood. Judged. Unwanted. Who among us has not experienced these feelings in life? Who among us hasn’t felt insecure? Teenagers and young people are especially prone to these unavoidable wounds in life. They are especially able to connect to these feelings because they so want to fit in with their peers. They experience these feelings as they interact with peers and develop friendships in the close environment of school, as well as in their dealings with adults.
In Diane Ferlatte’s story “You Never Know What the End’s Gonna Be,” Diane shares with listeners a very relatable experience from her own life. This event touched on feelings we all experience: misunderstood, judged, and unwanted.
Marrying a man of a different race from herself left many obstacles to overcome with Diane and her new mother-in-law. The highs and lows changed how the family connected and communicated with each other.
In this story, she offers a message of caution so that we can all benefit from her life lesson. Take what you’re given in life, because you never know how long it will be yours to have. That’s a caveat we all can appreciate.
Listen and learn from this touching story: .
. You Never Know What the Ends Gonna Be
Be moved by some of the other storytellers in our free line-up on our Showcase Page.
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…)
In 2011, Sue meets a group of young people at an Occupy Chicago demonstration who are unaware of activists’ movements in the past that occupied public lands. Sue shares the story of The 1968 Poor People’s Campaign – Dr. King’s last crusade that was carried on after his death in 1968. (more…)
In 1965, there was a war between India and Pakistan and Bilal wanted to know “Why is there all this hate?” This is the true story of a special gift Dr. Bilal Ahmed, a Pakistani Muslim, received from his father when he was thirteen. He offered his story as a gift to storyteller, Noa Baum, to shape and retell and, now, having told it to you, she hopes you will pass it on. (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.
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?
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:MR-Ds-CLASS
Why did the class attitude and atmosphere change when students started sharing their own stories?
Why was it important for the students to have the experience of their lives being witnessed and appreciated by others?
What difference do you think the publication of their stories made to the students that year and the years that followed?
The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative by Vivian Gornick
The Power of Personal Storytelling by Jack Maguire
Education and Life Lessons
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
Hi, my name is Antonio Sacre.
Have you ever been inspired by a teacher to do something you didn’t think you could do? Have you ever felt like you let somebody down for not being able to do what you said you were gonna do? I meet Dennis Danzinger, a high school English teacher, at Venice High School, part of Los Angeles Unified School District where I lived a few years ago. He had heard me tell stories in English and in Spanish. He was interested in me possibly working with his kids about how to write stories and tell their own stories. And so I met with him. And when I met with him in person, I was surprised at how intelligent his eyes were and how caring he looked and also how tall he was. I looked at him and before I even said hello, I said, “Wow, you are tall!” He was well over 6 feet. I just blurted it out, “Did you play basketball in college?” He said, “As a matter of fact, I’ve played in college and my college basketball coach said that if I was just a little bit faster, a little bit taller, a little bit better on the pick-and-roll, a little bit better outside shot, better hands on defense, I still wouldn’t make the pros!” He had me at such ease and calm and I was just laughing and talking with him. Loved meeting him!
He told me that he had gotten a grant from a wonderful organization called Pen in The Classroom. It was for money to encourage kids to tell and write their own stories and at the end of the project, they would publish it in an anthology. An actual book that the kids could hold in their hands. And he was intrigued, he thought that I might be good with those kids. And I was happy to talk to him about the possibility. He told me about the money, though, and there wasn’t a lot of it. And I told him that right away. I said, “That’s not a lot of money!” And he said, “I know it’s not a lot of money but these kids have so much potential and so many people have already given up on these kids. These kids have been given up on by parents, and administrators, and school districts.” And he said, “These kids are almost graduating; they’re seniors. There’s so much potential with these kids!” And his passion for his kids moved me a little bit and I had to still consider it.
So as we sat, talking some more, he talked about how when he first moved out to Los Angeles, he was a screenwriter and a TV writer. And he got his first big break on a huge TV show. I thought that was great. So I said, “What was the show?” He said, “Taxi.” And I said, “Wow!”
And he said, “Yeah, it was a pretty big show.”
And I said, “Yeah, it was a big show. It’s just that you are older than you look. Gosh, you are old, old, old like senior citizen old. Like didn’t they shoot that in black and white?”
And he started to laugh. He said, “Listen, you’re not so young yourself! I see that gray around your temples, you know!”
And we had a big laugh, you know, and I thought it would be great to work with this guy.
And then I thought about what he had done. He said he’d given up working on that TV show, with all the dream and money and prestige that comes from writing for a big sitcom to become a high school English teacher in one of the toughest school districts in one of the most embattled districts in the country. He’d given up a world of wealth and pressure for a world of the pressure and none of the wealth. And he seemed happy. He seemed exciting; I was intrigued. And he took my silence for reticence.
And he said, “Listen, I’ll tell you what, I will buy you lunch before every class at the best sandwich shop in Venice, California and I will give you a copy of my new book.”
He held out his hand. I shook it. I said, “Dennis, lunch better be good and your book better not suck!”
He laughed and he said, “Listen, my book will make you laugh at least once, guaranteed. And if it doesn’t, I’ll give you your money back.”
When he took me to his car and gave me his book, I laughed immediately. The title was “A Short History of a Tall Jew.” He said, “There you are. One laugh guaranteed. See you in a couple weeks.” I read that book for two weeks and it made me laugh out loud a lot. I couldn’t wait to start with Dennis and his high school seniors at Venice High School.
When I showed up at his school (we had lunch before) and he talked to me. He said, “I want you to tell your bilingual stories in English and Spanish. ‘Cause I have kids from 30 different countries. A lot of them from Spanish speaking countries but all over the world. They’re gonna love that you’re bilingual. They’re gonna love you. It’s gonna be fantastic!”
And I got to his class; they had a little podium in the front. Huge seagulls right outside screeching away.- not too far from the beach. And I began to tell my stories. My bilingual stories of growing up Cuban Irish American, like one of my friends calls me, a leprechauno. And as I was telling those stories, those kids mostly listened and mostly looked at me. Although one kid was texting underneath his desk, another kid had his head on the desk the whole time. A bald kid over here, looked like a gang banger for sure, shaved head, tattoos, piercings, black clothes! Looked like he was gonna do something to me after school and none of it was going to be good. When I was done, nobody clapped. Nobody said anything. And then the bell rang. Those kids walked out of the classroom, not even looking at me. Mr. D, Mr Danzinger, came up to me afterward. He said, “That was brilliant! That was incredible! I’ve never seen them listen for that long!” Now he had a way of inspiring me, making me feel like I did better than I actually did.
The next lunch meeting a week later, he said, “Listen, keep going on. Tell them how you write your stories. Tell them what you do when you’re coming up with stories.”
And so I told them more stories and I told them about all the things I do when I’m writing stories. And the same response! Silence! Kid still head on the desk, kid still texting, bald gang banger kid staring daggers into me. And again, when they left, no response.
The next week at our lunch meeting, I said, “Mr. D, maybe I’m not cut out for this, maybe I can’t reach these kids.” He says, “You know what? I will talk to them.” The next class, he’s cajoling and pleading and joking with the kids and making them listen. And they’re very excited and he sits back down again. And they’re looking at me again and I just looked at them. I had no idea what to do. Maybe I couldn’t reach these kids. Maybe I was too old, too out of touch, not with it with these kids. Maybe I just didn’t have anything to say. And I finally just said, “Look, I told you all the stories I know. I’ve taught you the things that I do when I write stories and I’m at the end here. So maybe it’s just time for me to shut up and listen. Maybe it’s just time for me to see what kind of stories you got. So what I’m gonna do is I’m gonna sit down on this desk right here and I’m going to leave this podium open. It’s open podium. You come up and you just tell me one sentence of one story that might go in our anthology at the end of this little time that we have together. ‘Cause you have an opportunity to be published in an anthology! An amazing opportunity to do that! Mr. D and I are working hard to do this. It’s up to you now.” And I sat down.
And Mr. D was silent. And I was silent. And those kids didn’t look at anything. Just sat there. The longest 5 minutes that I’ve had in my performing career, my storytelling career. I sat there and I didn’t say anything. Just the seagulls blaring on the way to the beach a mile and a whole world away.
And then, Courtney stood up. Courtney, long hair, she looked younger and older than she should have been. She stood at that podium and she said, “I left my mom in Washington State 2 years ago. She was doing things that I don’t want to tell you about. I got on a bus with my under-the-mattress money, and I came to Venice. Got me a job at the grocery store, I work, I put myself up in my own apartment, and I’m a straight A student.” And she sat down.
And there was silence. And then, a kid got up, took his head up from the desk and walked up to the podium. And he said, “I don’t know if many of my extended family survived the Tsunami in Japan.” And there was a deeper silence in the room. And he sat down and put his head back on the desk. Maybe that’s why his head was on the desk these last three weeks.
More silence and then a kid walked up, wispy kid, blonde hair, blue eyes. He said, “I’m not Mexican enough for my friends and my white friends think I’m too Mexican. I’m somewhere in the middle. I’m 100% Mexican. I don’t know. They call me Little Blondie, Whitey… I don’t understand.” And he sat down.
And then bald, gang banger kid stood up. I didn’t flinch… or maybe I flinched. He was scary. I don’t know. He came sauntering up to me, just passed me; stood at that podium. Turned around, growled at the kids and he said, “It’s not easy keeping this head so smooth and shiny.” (Moves hand down head as he says “smooth and shiny.”)
And we all busted out laughing. 30 kids from 20 countries and 2 old, old, old as dirt dudes laughing, laughing as this kid went, “smooth and shiny.” (Moves hand down head as he says “smooth and shiny.”) And he walked back to his desk, high-fiving and fist bumping. And kids now, could not be contained in their chairs. Leaping at that podium. Everybody wanting to speak with one sentence of what their story might be in an anthology.
And at the end of that class that bell went off and nobody moved. And baldy in the corner said, “Yo, we just got started!” And Mr. D said, “That’s what I’m talking about. We just got started. You got eight more weeks with this guy and me and that podium to create an anthology that’s gonna be published in the world!” And a kid started almost to smile. And he said, “Next week he’ll be here, I’ll be here, that podium will be here! Don’t forget to read Chapter 7 in your book tonight and get on out to 5th period and don’t be late you Scallywags!” And the kids, as they walked by, looked at me through the corner of their eye and almost smiled. Mr. D came up to me, held his hand out, I shook it. He leaned into me and said, “It’s about time, Shorty!” I laughed and said, “Thanks a lot, senior citizen!”
And Mr. D and I worked with those kids. And those kids wrote their stories and after 12 weeks, we submitted them to Pen in The Classroom. And they published this book, “I Stand Alone: A Collection of Stories and Poems From Mr. D’s 12th Grade English Class.”
And if 30 kids from 20 countries and two old as dirt teachers can create this. (Points to book.)
In my heart, I sometimes feel that we can do anything. Now I don’t always feel that way but when I do, it’s powerful.
And I want to read to you the poem that I wrote for those high school kids that is included at the end of this anthology. It’s called “For Mr. D’s High School Kids in the Anthology.”
I came to Venice High School to work a two month writing residency with questions.
Would Mr. D be as cool in the classroom as he seemed outside the classroom?
Would I be able to find the office through the maze of jean-clad, texting teens?
Is this really where they film “Fast Times at Ridgemont High?”
Would I be too nervous to share my stories to seniors who are ready to graduate? Would they listen? Will I ever be able to help them write anything?
Is that kid white or Mexican? Is that gang banger in the corner going to kill me after class? And how does he get his head so shiny and smooth? It’s so smooth and shiny! I wonder how he does it? And then those high school seniors began to read one sentence of their story from that podium after that one break through. And they started talking and listening and I had more questions. Do they have the courage to face their woundings and put it on the page? Will that kid ever stop texting? Will that kid ever get his head off the desk? Will that girl ever have the gumption to leave that boyfriend of hers? And how did that kid get his head so smooth and shiny? It’s so smooth. And will he kill me after class? And those kids started to write and rewrite. And then they’d stand at that podium with the recycling piling high in the corner and the seagulls screeching. And they started to pour forth a rumped up, drizzle down, gush over, scream, whisper, speak secrets, reveal wonder, reveal wonder, show courage, rip tides, tear hearts open…Revealing wonder, revealing wonder, revealing wonder! Making me laugh, making me sigh, making it hard to keep my eyes dry! And I would witness and talk and question. And they would pour forth, knowing that I couldn’t take away the pain of what they’d face in a day. But I know that they’re survivors because they are here in class. They are not dead. They’re not in jail. They’re not ditching. They’re here struggling to graduate.
And I knew it didn’t feel like anything to them. But to me, it’s amazing! And José wrote an amazing poem where we got our title saying that he stands alone. He stands alone. And I say to José, “You do not stand alone. I stand with you. You stand with me. We stand together.”
And I will carry your memory from this class out into the world as I tell stories. And I will tell it and tell it and tell it. And journey with you even though we may never see each other again. And you gotta know and we gotta know and we gotta remember that we stood together for a time. We stand together, we stand together!
And even though I have more questions, always questions, at least I have one answer. For a smooth head, all you need is Neutrogena and a Mach 5 razor.
A woman tells Jon the story of how when she was a girl a perfect stranger saved her from arrest and worse. The woman left before Jon could ask her more, but her story says that this could happen anywhere and at any time. Any of us may be called to help another.
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:On-the-Bus
Brainstorm a list of things you can do for others that shows kindness.
When have you been afraid? What did or could someone have done to alleviate your fears?
Why did the perfect stranger on the bus protect the young girl? Would you have done similarly?
Hi, I’m Jon Spelman. In the mid 1990’s, I began to tell an evolving collection of stories called, “I Still Believe: The Lives of Children and Extremities.” These are stories collected from North and South America, from Europe, from Asia, and from Africa. Stories about the faith and the strength of young people as they came up against oppression, racial, political, cultural pressure and violence. One of those stories, which was told to me, seems to me, to stand in for all those other stories because it, when it was told to me, had no time, no specific place, no specific political location. The story is called, “On the Bus,” and it’s from the point of view of a young girl.
I was on a bus at a time when people like me are not allowed to be on a bus or any form of conveyance. In a place where I was not supposed to be, at a time when I was not allowed to be outside. And I was not wearing the kinds of clothes that we were told to wear. Nor did I have any of the papers which would make me officially allowed to be there. But since I looked a lot like many of the people who did those things, I was nervous but not frightened. And then suddenly, in the midst of a block, the bus was stopped by four soldiers. Two got on the front, two got on the back, and immediately began to ask everyone for their papers.
Now I was frightened. And then a man near the front, who had apparently not had any papers, was taken out into the street and shot. And the soldiers got back onto the bus and I was terrified. They were coming closer and closer to me, closing in on both sides. And when they asked for my papers I knew that I would be destroyed.
And then, a man sitting next to me, I had not even looked at him, I certainly did not know him, he suddenly stood up and he started screaming at me, “You stupid, stupid girl! How many times do I have to tell you! What am I supposed to do about this?”
And at that, the four officers all came over and that they looked at us and, and he said to them, “Every time we leave the house. This morning when I left, I told her three times. I said, ‘Bring your papers.’ But does she remember to bring her papers. No, she does not. What is a father to do?”
The soldiers looked at him and they looked at me. They looked at each other and laughed. Then they quickly checked his papers, and the papers of a few more people, got off the bus, and we continued on our way.
I sat there staring at the floor. I dared not reveal in my face what I was feeling for this, this angel who had saved my life. I was still staring at the floor when several stops later, the man got up and started for the exit. But before he went through that door, he turned back to me and he said, “Oh, and today please, when you go home, help your mother with the baby.” And he was gone. And I was alive.
When Charlotte Blake Alston accepts a teaching position at a private Quaker school, she expects she’ll finally become part of an educational institution committed to respect and equality for all members of the school community. But true equity comes with awareness, sensitivity and diligence. The School of Invisibility illustrates how cultural conditioning can creep into even the most “inclusive” school environment.
What do Quakers believe and what is their history in the United States?
We can have good intentions yet have a very different impact on others. When have you unconsciously discriminated against others? When have you felt left out or treated as if you weren’t as good as someone else?
How do you show respect and create a sense of equality with others?
Hi, I’m Charlotte Blake Alston. I’m wondering if you might be one of the many people who often have to pick and choose your battles when it comes to gender or ethnic experiences in America. And you get to that place where, mmm, you’re going to have to make a decision, finally, to take a stand and make a challenge. This is one such experience.
It was the spring of 1980 when I first walked through the doors of the prestigious K-12 Philadelphia Friends School where I would spend the final years of my teaching career. The Religious Society of Friends, a community, an organization, as I had learned it, with a commitment to human equity. One that had acknowledged and fought for the humanity of my American ancestors.
This could be a place, I thought, where I might be seen as I saw myself: a person… a teacher… not a black teacher. As I entered the school and walked into the foyer, I was met by the receptionist, a light-complexioned African-American woman. I sighed! Relief! As I walked down the long corridor towards the lower school, I looked about, as we often do, to see if there was anyone else in the building who looked like me. There was. She had on a blue uniform; she was pushing a cleaning cart. “Good morning!” I said.
“Oh, good morning!” Her entire face lit up into a smile.
Over the two days of interviews, going from department to department, I considered, not only my own comfort level in this environment, but that of my son, who, if I accepted the position, would enter second grade. The last day, I headed towards the door and then stopped, turned around and decided I would go back and see if I could find the cleaning woman I had spoken to the day before. I decided that I would base my decision on what she had to say about working in that environment.
“Oh, I just love it!” she said. “The people here are just so nice.”
So, when the formal offer came, I accepted. I settled really easily into the rhythm of school life, uh, attending my first meeting for worship with five to 10-year-olds, uh, being addressed as teacher and my first name, bus duty, lunch duty, parent conferences and then came the faculty trustees’ dinner, a formal annual event to which every faculty member was required to attend.
This was a formal sit-down dinner in the school cafeteria and members of the faculty and members of the board of trustees were assigned tables together, where we would share a meal and awkward conversation. Well, I scanned the room and it hit me. All of the people sitting down, being served, except three, were white. All of the people doing the serving, except for two work study students, were members of the maintenance and the cafeteria staff, all of whom were black. There was something wrong with this picture.
Here I was, at a Quaker school, a community under the auspices of the Religious Society of Friends, an organization committed to human equity, an organization that prided itself on creating what they considered to be a microcosm of the ideal society. So, here in this microcosm of the ideal society, my place in it was articulated with crystal clarity. Nearly all of the people of color in this environment, at this event, were here to serve. I could not, would not participate in making that statement. The following morning. I went to the headmaster and expressed my concerns. “Does it have to be a formal sit-down dinner?” I asked.
His response was that removing that would take the job away from the two work study students and I would have to come up with a replacement job for the work study students.
“Well,” I said. “Couldn’t it be buffet where people might, oh, I don’t know, serve themselves? Uh, you would still need someone to prepare the food, place it in the trays, keep it hot, replenish it if it was empty and clean up afterwards.”
“I’ll give it some thought,” he said.
“Okay,” I thought. “I stated it as clearly as I think I can. And we have a year for you to make some decision about a different option.” I did let him know that I did understand that this was mandatory for faculty and I would not buck that rule. But if the following year, the format had not changed, I would attend but I would take my place as I saw it dictated in that circumstance. I would put on an apron and I would serve.
Well, a year went by and the day of the faculty trustee dinner, I popped into the headmaster’s office and said, “Hey, just checking to see about the dinner tonight. Just to see if the format has changed.”
“No, it hasn’t.” he said. But he added, “You can choose whether to come or not.”
Well, for the remainder of the day I would pass faculty members in the hall, or people would pop into my classroom and say, “See ya tonight.”
I’d say, “No, you won’t! I’m not going to be coming.”
“What! How did you get out of this?” people wanted to know. And when I told them, “I never thought of that. I never noticed it.” was the most oft-repeated reply.
Well, the buzz from the faculty continued into the next day. And at the end of the day, two lower school faculty members came to me and said, “We’re very upset. We’re upset that a member of our community is upset and is offended and we want to do something about it.”
An ad hoc committee was formed by my lower school colleagues and they wanted to look at our community like, “What else are we missing?” They wanted to know, “What else are we not seeing?”
Oh, one thing stuck out to me in my mind, immediately, and that was the way that African-American adults in the community were addressed by children. White children in the school were addressing them as kindergarten or fourth grade peers. All faculty members had a title of respect. Teacher and your first name. But the people who were in uniform, who drove the buses, who served lunch in the cafeteria, who ensure that every nook and cranny of the school’s exterior and interior was spotless, sanitary and presentable were addressed by children as Larry or Loretta. From the time we have set foot on the soil in our country, referring to African-American adults as children has been the ultimate expression of disrespect. It’s demeaning. It’s dehumanizing. It’s dismissive. In our community, you do not address an adult by their first name unless they have given you permission to do so. And even then, it’s preceded by a title. It’s Miss Susan or it’s Mr. Jeff.
Well, this committee decided that they would go to the board of trustees and talk about some of these issues. And see if they might get the board to understand the potential negative impact that this had, not only on the adults in the community, but also on the children, as well. And to see if they might be willing to at least talk about this and begin to address some of our concerns.
Well, one trustee asked me what my credentials were. He wanted to know, “How long have you been teaching. Uh, uh, you know, what is your experience in these sorts of issues? Uh, what qualifications do… you know… I bring to discussions of racial equity and parity and respect?”
Well, I recounted for him my pre-Friends school teaching experience and then pointed out, because, clearly, he hadn’t noticed, that I was, indeed, black.
“Well,” he said. “This is like one of those things that you don’t think about ‘til somebody brings it up and you really don’t think about it ‘til somebody brings it up again.”
“Well, that’s interesting.” I thought, “Well, my contract was just renewed. So, I’ll be here again to bring it up.”
Well, it’s one of those, you know, if we don’t see it, then it doesn’t exist kind of sensibilities. It’s like we are not credible enough witnesses for our own experience. Well, evidence of the absolute destructive impact of that sensibility was brought home to me when my second-grade son happened to come into my classroom and he asked me a question about the older white adult, my assistant, who was in my classroom. “The teacher, as he put it.”
And I said, “Oh, no! I’m the teacher in the classroom. She’s my assistant.”
Uh, uh! And then out of his little second grader mouth came the words, “You couldn’t be!”
Both of us had come to this school from the multi-ethnic Children’s Center at the University of Pennsylvania where I was Educational Director, had an office with a name plate on my door.
But somehow, in this environment, the message to him was loud and clear. Here a black person could not be in a position of authority. I needed no other supporting evidence to make my case. What a painful, wrenching contrast!
“Well, nobody really thinks about it.”
“You couldn’t be!”
Well, I continued to be the one to bring it up. But the wonderful colleagues who are members of this ad hoc committee were really persistent in what they were doing and decided they wanted to take a complete look at the kind of community that we were. They wanted to make sure that they raised the difficult questions. That we had the awkward conversation that we’re really beginning to see and remove the cloak of invisibility. And begin to acknowledge what was actually going on in our environment.
This particular school eventually began to host an annual job fair for people of color, created a multicultural committee that took a look at every aspect of our school community, created racial awareness seminars. And, really, began to focus on the importance of every person in that community being acknowledged, recognized, heard, and respected. That effort, I hope, continues.
The nine years that I spent in that environment were some of the most growth full, memorable experiences of my life: teaching, coaching, working with incredibly creative colleagues, working on getting the school to be the kind of community it really wanted to be.
And a year after I left, I went back to go to a girls’ basketball game and as I entered the school, I saw the head of maintenance. And I went to, uh, address him; I went to wave and call his name when I saw a little kid running towards him. And as that child opened her mouth to greet him, I could feel my teeth clench. And then I heard her say, “Hi, Mr. Maurice!” Huuuh!
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…)