Wednesday, April 16, 2008


(Waves, by Berenice Abbott, 1958-1960)

This post is dedicated to the artesian well which was La Chola.

In the mid to late 1980s, I participated in a series of national workshops for a group of peer counselors working on reclaiming Southern identity and pride. This was NOT a white supremacy driven agenda; it was open to all Southerners and emphasized the need for us to acknowledge and clean up the parts of our identity which were oppressive, all of it. I learned tons at these workshops, and it was instrumental in me becoming able to return to the South to be an effective activist in place, a radical anti-racism, anti-classism, lesbian-feminist back at home where I was not preaching to the choir.

Still, after three years, the attendance at these workshops was grossly imbalanced with regard to race and to people who were currently involved in extended family life. (Well-mixed in every other regard.) Those attending were all white except for one or maybe two brave souls. That year, our leader and the woman who founded the idea of these workshops, Nancy Kline, gave us a talk which I will recreate as well as my imperfect memory will allow:

"Several thousand years ago, human beings developed technology and agriculture in a particular way in one part of the world to such an extent that they accumulated a surplus. With this surplus, they did lots of things we can admire, like ensuring longer and healthier lives for their citizens, offering more education to their children, fostering art and thinking and spirituality. But they also began moving out of their native territories to exploit the resources and people of other regions, and with them they carried their belief system, their ways of organizing society and culture, which they forced by any means necessary on those who lived in the territories they came to occupy.

"One of their beliefs was that only people who resembled them were actual human beings. In particular, they meant people who had light-colored skin. Anyone with darker-colored skin was declared not human, but instead some kind of animal. And animals, they believed, were put on earth by god to serve human beings.

"Thousands of years pass. Slowly, the colonizers develop a view of animals that is not quite so predatory and cruel. They also come to believe, as a culture and within their institutions, that these other people are not in fact animals, but a version of human being: Not a full human being like white people, but worthy of more respect than a mere animal.

"Another several centuries pass. The colonizers painfully come to understand that these other, non-white people are actually entirely human, to exactly the same extent they are. But, they explain, these other human beings have not had the advantages of civilization to develop fully. They are as children, and must be treated with the benevolent control we exercise over children.

"More time passes. Now, within the lifetimes of most of us in this room, many of us have broken through to understanding that people of color are identical to us in all human regards. They have gone on being human beings for the past several thousand years, although we have excluded them, their beliefs and thought systems and culture, from any of our most powerful institutions and ways of doing things. We say to them, We were wrong. Our ancestors were wrong. We want you to forgive us. We want you to come be with us. Come join our universities, our governments, our organizations, all of which were created without your input in any meaningful way. And we don't understand why they don't accept our invitation -- why they insist we have not actually made room for them. We want them with us in our comfortable spaces, why do they not give us credit for our best intentions?"

After she finished this talk, we broke into small groups for a while to deal with the overwhelming grief that seized us. The scenario she outlined also applies to class and to gender. People who are involved in recovery programs understand that just deciding to stop drinking is not enough -- you have to recreate your entire identity, you have to "work the steps", and one of those steps is amends (where it will do no harm to make amends). But the first step is to give up control.

For the rest of that workshop, we pushed each other to give up control and comfort. We brainstormed, based on our limited comprehension of non-white culture, what we could change about our ways of doing things that might eliminate barriers. A lot of the answers came from white poor and working class people. We realized in order to open the doors to people of color who believed in the principles we followed, we had to open the doors to every person of color, their families and friends, without limitation. We had to step away from all the ways we thought we knew how to do things and face the void of not knowing what was going to happen next. And, as a group, we made the choice to do that.

We stopped the practice of a workshop consisting of a talking head at the front of the room and silent deference from all the listeners. We created multiple, concurrent leaders who were in constant call and response with everyone on the room. We made meals and singing together the focus of our gatherings, instead of "teaching". We scheduled the workshop on a major holiday when working people could afford to take time off. We did massive fundraising so the sliding scale attendance fee began at zero. We agreed to do all the work of maintaining the workshop facility -- cooking, cleaning, etc. -- ourselves, not just to reduce costs but also to ensure we worked together, which is the best kind of learning. We said any family member or friend is welcome, no matter what.

Our choices caused major ripples in the parent organization, most of which were negative. We stood our ground and said "Let's just see what happens." The following year, 40% of those who attended were people of color. We had newborn babies and folks in their 80s. We had loud, disruptive, messy sessions that seemed to reach no resolution. We got over our cheap selves. We had glorious food, and singing that never stopped. We had the time of our lives. And we, all of us, got a taste of what we had missed our entire lives.

Within six weeks, Nancy Kline was removed from leadership in that organization and banned from all its activities. One of the charges laid against her was racism, though no one could ever explain how she had been racist. Virtually every one of us who had been to those workshops also left the organization. We went out elsewhere and continued to build on what we had learned.

(From Unlearning Racism by Ricky Sherover-Marcuse)

We have to unclench our tight white fingers from holding onto the reins, even if (as women, as queers, as po' white trash) we've only got a partial grip on those reins.

Sharon Bridgforth in one of her plays retold a true story about a place in (I believe) Louisiana where white people had invaded and laid claim to land which had belonged to native people for time immemorial, introducing slavery and other subjugation. One day a small group of the enslaved went door to door, shucking and jiving in rags and smiles, offering to "clean the guns" of white folks for a pittance. The armaments of household after household were delivered into the arms of those "just trying to make a livin' here". Once the community was disarmed, the rightful inhabitants rose up and killed the invaders.

When this was performed, the audience always cheered. We love the story of Nat Turner, of St. John's, of the Amistad, of Harriet Tubman, because they are about resistance which succeeds, if only temporarily. But they are small islands in a sea of misery. We know what happens when the imperalists re-arm and return.

The Akmamu of St. John's ran from the allied forces of three European nations (England, France and Denmark) until there was no more land, at Ram Head Point. They jumped into the ocean and drowned rather than return to slavery, throwing their children in first.

We know, every one of us, what we face when we decide to stand down the forces arrayed against us. We will lose friends and family, at least temporarily. (See you on the other side.) We will gather at the ship's rail at night, trying to remember constellations and stars because we have no compass. We will find the distrust embedded in our culture to be actual chains of iron that clank when we walk or dance. The more damaged among us will savage the weak or distracted.

But we are at that next step, that next leap of consciousness. If "they" are not sending us their manuscripts, if they are not sharing their thinking free of charge, if they are not sitting home in silence until we need our lawns moved or concrete poured or chickens cut into pieces for frying, if they are not forgiving us our trespasses -- what more of a sign do you fucking want? We have to go meet them, listen to them without interruption or apologia, and be the ones to turn around ten thousands years of error.

Let's do it with honor. Let's go.

1 comment:

letsdance said...

AMEN, Maggie! It is up to us -- the "privileged" ones to seek new relationships with all our sisters and brothers.

You never disappoint, Maggie. You always teach/lead/give us new mind opening awakenings.

Thank you.