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Posts Tagged ‘power’

“Land is power.” Ruby McGee

Tonight I had the distinct pleasure of watching an amazing documentary, Dirt and Deeds in Mississippi. It tells another amazing “hidden figures” kind of story, some Black history that was rolled up in cotton wool and tucked way out of sight. In this case, the story of Black land-owning farmers and the role they played in the fight for rights — civil, voting, human — in Mississippi. It is an eye-opening, painful, powerful, important document of history. I could watch it on a loop for days.

Ruby McGee was the first Black person to be registered to vote in her county. Today, she owns and operates the family tree farm that gave her the freedom to take some of the chances she took as a young woman, that enabled her parents to run a Freedom School. She talks about what being a landowner gave her, says that it meant she didn’t have to work in white people’s kitchens. She talks about the idea of “knowledge is power” … and says no, “Land is power.”

And that resonated so deeply in my chest. I wanted to clap my hands and shout, “Yes!” It reminded me:

Got land to stand on,
then you can stand up,
stand up for your rights
as a woman, as a man.

“Achin’ for Acres” by Arrested Development was about exactly this, the power of owning where you live, owning the ground beneath your feet.

And it reminded me of my sadness, my personal heartache when family land has been lost, on my mother’s side, on my father’s. Those are pieces of ourselves we can never get back. I feel the empty spaces left by each even now, years later.

It reminded me of something I heard John Boyd Jr. say a while ago in an NPR profile piece: all of us are no more than two generations removed from somebody’s farm.

It reminded me of Constance Curry’s amazing book, Silver Rights, also about Mississipi.

This movie touched so many chords. And it spilled over into tonight’s chōka.

I have so much pride
seeing my ancestors fight
seeing them stand up
refusing to cave, to give.
This is what it means:
strength, power, faith, love, honor.
This is who we are,
fierce, unendingly stubborn
and sure. Sure of us,
sure of the fact we were right.
Sure that — live or die — we’d win.

My family isn’t from Mississippi — at least no one I’ve found yet — but Dirt and Deeds felt like home all the same.

_____

A chōka is a Japanese form poem with a specific syllable count per line. The shortest form of chōka  is: 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 7. The 5- and 7-syllable lines can repeat as many times as needed. The poem’s end is signaled by the extra 7-syllable line. The final five lines can be used to summarize the body of the poem.



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Speak the Word (excerpt)

These weakened knees
Have not touched ground or pew in ages
I haven’t bowed my head
To offer thanks to any god or to ask for favors
But watch me now
I’m falling down
Praying
To speak the word that precedes bliss
To speak the word
To speak the word

— Tracy Chapman

The poem I wanted to share tonight is less gentle.  Today Staceyann Chin responded to some of the hateful, misogynistic filth that was flung at her.  She posted an amazing poem that blew back my hair, blew my mind, blew the haters out of the water.  Rather than post it here with a content warning, I’ve linked to it and will encourage you to read every amazing word.  Just as I couldn’t believe the racist tweets I wrote about last week, I can’t believe the disgusting things people (okay, men) say to Chin.  What I can believe is how she doesn’t take their crap sitting down, how she won’t sit down, sit back, hold back.  She goes hard, with a fire and eloquence I can only dream about.  How grateful am I that her voice is in the world?

__________

So it’s poetry month.  Poetry month and I’ve saddled myself with another challenge, not just the write-a-poem-every-day challenge, which would be a big enough mountain to climb.  I seem wed to the idea of writing one of these Zeno poems every day (or until I collapse under the strain of it).  To recap, here are the syllable and rhyme patterns of the Zeno:

8/4/2/1/4/2/1/4/2/1
a/b/c/d/e/f/d/g/h/d

Got it?  Yeah.  Like Othello: a minute to learn, a lifetime to master and all that.  As almost always happens with these challenges, I did okay in my first attempt.  I like the poem I wrote after making the mandala at the WE LEARN conference.  But then it all went down hill.  So very far down.

But I am nothing if not dogged in my pursuit of impossible goals.  I had already done a month of tankas when I borrowed this idea from Sonia Sanchez two years ago.  I liked the idea because writing the same form over and over again every day for a month seemed like a kind of meditation, a window into a lot more than how to write that particular form.  The last three years have shown me that there can be breakthrough moments in this month for me.  The tanka month in 2009 was full of surprises, but even the painfully difficult Rhyme Royale month in 2010 and last year’s excruciating Nove Otto month gave me a few cloud-parting flashes of inspiration.  Surely the Zeno has some hidden gifts just waiting to shower themselves over me.

But not tonight.

fine gauge

my stitches follow one, one more —
knit, yarn-over,
knit two
purl.
patterns taught, learned
as a
girl
each stitch a piece,
story,
world.

Oh, it’s early days.  Still a lot of work to do.  Never mind me.  Go read Staceyann’s amazing piece.  Let her show you how it’s done.

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let there be new flowering

let there be new flowering
in the fields let the fields
turn mellow for the men
let the men keep tender
through the time let the time
be wrested from the war
let the war be won
let love be
at the end

— Lucille Clifton

__________

Today my colleague and I presented our Intimate Partner Violence workshop for one of the teen groups in our peer mentoring program.  I was pretty nervous about doing this.  I really wanted to, but wasn’t sure we’d had enough time to put everything together, wasn’t sure the kids (ahem, excuse me: the young people) would respond well to us … just wasn’t sure.

Right.  Can I be so bold as to say we rocked?  No, but we really did.  And part of that was because we put together a great workshop, but a lot of that was because of this wonderful group of young people.  I’d met some of them before, but never had the chance to work with them, the chance to just sit and listen to them talk.  This group has been working together since the fall, so they’ve had a lot of time to come together as a team, and it shows.  They are so warm and funny with each other, so encouraging and supportive.  And they were a perfect group for us as presenters: immediately into each activity, so talkative, really focused on the issue, full of questions.  In short, a complete pleasure to work with.  Here is the result of the first activity.  We put out markers and asked them to come up and write whatever came to mind when they heard terms like Intimate Partner Violence and Domestic Violence:

(I’m sad this picture isn’t better, but I’m glad I caught even this much.)

And how can I be so sure that the workshop was a hit?  Before it was even half over, they wanted to know when we’d be back, wanted to know if we’d help them work on the theater piece they’re developing about domestic violence.  (Easy answer to that last: YES!)

Tonight’s rhyme royal is dedicated to the wonderful, intelligent, inspiring Theater Team:

Like a noonday equatorial sun
their rhythm is strong.
Given free run,
it is full of their light, their youth, their song
their energy a-kindle as they fly headlong
into each challenge, each new thing
and I watch in wonder as their power takes wing.

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The director of our counseling program and I are developing a workshop for the young people (teens aged 14 to 19) in our peer education program.  The kids are creating a music / theater / spoken word piece that deals, among other things, with domestic violence.  The stories that have emerged as part of the creative process have been moving and disturbing, and the group leaders approached us to come up with a presentation that would help put some of that into perspective as well as provide some resources for participants or audience members who wanted or needed more information or assistance.

Just as I started thinking of what I’d want to include in the workshop, I went up to Providence for the WE LEARN conference.  Walking into the downtown campus of the University of Rhode Island, I found that the striking and intense work of The Clothesline Project was on display along with a series of artworks also addressing issues of domestic violence.  Clotheslines were strung with t-shirts from the second floor staircase down to the ground floor.  Some were very simple, others quite involved, all were powerful.  I want to incorporate these images and ideas into the workshop, but haven’t figured out the “how” of that yet.

The most painful part of the exhibit was the gallery of women lost to DV:

We have a lot of work to do to pull our presentation together, but I hope there’s room to include some of these, a way to include them that won’t shut us all down with pain and anger.

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So now it’s John Mayer.  He said ‘nigger’ in an interview with Playboy.  He talked about his penis being a white supremacist and then went on to say some offensive things about black women and particularly actress Kerry Washington.  He’s been apologizing for it, of course: on Twitter, in his concerts, in subsequent interviews.  Of course.  And it’s annoying and it pisses me off, but as Jay points out (see below), I really can’t be spending all my energy on this kind of crap.  There are more important places for me to work.

True.  Completely true.  But then there’s this other bit of the interview, the part I found the most offensive:

“What is being black? It’s making the most of your life, not taking a single moment for granted. Taking something that’s seen as a struggle and making it work for you, or you’ll die inside,” he stated. “Not to say that my struggle is like the collective struggle of black America. But maybe my struggle is similar to one black dude’s.”

No, it’s not the arrogance of this ridiculous young, white man saying his struggle can be equated to the struggle of black people — or even of ‘one black dude’ — although that’s entirely gag-worthy.  No, my gag reflex is triggered earlier in the quote, when he asks, “What is being black?” and proceeds to answer his question.

Yes, thank you John Mayer for defining my race for me, for helping me to understand what ‘being black’ means.  I have often found that, as a black person, I’m not able to figure out who I am or what I think until some white person — preferably one who is significantly younger than I am and who can have no real idea of what my experience might be — comes along and tells me.  If only I didn’t now know that your penis is David Duke, I might try throwing myself at you in gratitude. <<sigh>>

_____

One man’s intelligent take on the whole issue (though I wish he’d spent more time on the “stereotypes about sex, race and desirability” part).

And another man’s intelligent take on not making this be the issue:

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I have a student I’m going to call “Benny.”  He’s a young-ish Puerto Rican guy who has taken classes at my day job off and on for three years.  Mostly off.  He’s always been a bit of a screw up: in trouble, smoking too much pot, disappearing for days, weeks, whole semesters.  He’s one of the students you know needs the help, needs the services, needs the grounding that thinking he’s working toward his GED can give.  At the same time, he’s one of the ones who makes us wonder if he’s being well served by the program.

He drives Lena, my assistant, crazy.  She finds him utterly annoying and would be only to happy to see him expelled … not that we actually ever ‘expel’ students, but still.  He’s always driven me a little crazy, too, but there’s a soft place in my heart for him, no matter what he does.  (Yes, I have a lot of soft places in my heart.  Yes, I am the word ‘pushover’ made flesh.  What’s your point?)

He is what Lena calls one of my ‘benditos,’ the ones who I make excuses and allowances for because it’s so obvious that no one else does and they could use a little kindness and forgiveness and understanding.  (She has her benditos, too.  I’m not the only soft-touch in town.) So, because of Lena’s name for him, I’m calling him Benny.

When I walked into orientation for my night class in September, there was Benny, enrolled in that other program, enrolled in my class.  I asked if he was leaving the day class, and he said no.  And that ‘no’ meant that he would be my student day and evening.  Because yes, I am now teaching in the morning and at night.

(This is another gift from our funding loss: if we wanted the Pre-GED class to go on, I needed to teach it because we have no more funding for it.  And, while I am absolutely loving my day class, teaching nine hours in the morning makes it very hard for me to do my full-time program director job.  Just saying.)

Now that Benny is my student, I am seeing more every day just how right I’ve been to have faith in him.  He’s had consistent attendance and he’s an active participant.  What’s more, he knows so. much. stuff.  About world history, about politics.  It’s very impressive.  And he’s been loving the conversations we’ve had in class about the elections.    And I’ve really enjoyed having him in both of my classes.

Last Thursday night when he came to class was the first time he was seeing me since Obama had become our president [sigh of relief and joy!], and he wanted to talk.  At first I tried to get him settled into the writing activity, but I gave that up.  Why?  Because Benny asked what a person needed to be to be president, you know, legally-speaking.  And before I could start to answer, he got a look of amazement on his face and said:

“You see what this man has done?  He even has me thinking about what could be possible!”

Yeah.  Exactly.  I don’t really have words to say how much that moved me.

So we talked about rules like the one about having to be 35 … and suddenly Manny (a young Mexican man who almost never speaks) says, “I’ve got two out of three.  I’m just not 35 yet.”  And I suggested that it would be hard for him to wake up on his 35th birthday and suddenly become president, that there were things he should maybe be doing during the next 15 years to get himself ready.

Things?  Like what?  Turns out the idea of local politics has never really occurred to them.  The idea of any kind of activism has never really occurred to them.   We talked about the fact that a job like Benny’s — working for a small, way-left grassroots organization in the neighborhood — can be a good first step toward a career in politics.  After all, our new president was a community organizer once … We talked about the Community Board (which they are looking up for homework) and the City Council (more homework), about mayors and governors and state legislators … and Jorge (another young Mexican man who is even more silent than Manny) says, “So I could decide to run for one of these local offices?”  And Benny says, “Can’t you see it?  All of us in politics, all of us becoming politicians?  I never even thought about something like this.”

You see what this man has done?

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Oh come on, you know you want to be singing the song.

I went and stood in line this morning, trying hard to keep the big ol’ face-splitting smile on low.  How lovely was it to be voting in a predominantly black neighborhood today?

  • To see all those shades of the Diasporan rainbow coming out to cast their ballots.
  • To walk up to the school with a little group of elderly ladies who were glowing with the pleasure of getting to vote today.
  • To see everyone in such a great mood, chatting and laughing and, in one funny case, dancing in their joy of this day.
  • To see people taking their children into the booths.
  • To see one girl give her mother a big, exuberant hug when they came through the curtain.
  • To hear a little girl announce as she and her mom walked away from the booth, “I pulled it all by myself!”
  • To see so many very young, very new voters standing tall in line.
  • To see so many elderly African Americans making their way into the booths with canes, with walkers, with caregivers’ supporting arms.  “I wouldn’t have missed this for anything,” one woman told me.
  • My favorite was seeing a black man, maybe in his early 50s, step into the booth.  We heard that big lever slide over, heard the clicks of the small levers, and then we heard him shout “WooHoo!” as he pulled the big lever back and stepped out of the booth with a smile.

This has been a beautiful, emotional, ecstatic day.  I teared up many times, but my joy held the crying at bay.

Dig this:

vote

I haven’t cried yet, but I can feel it coming.  When this thing is called …

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