Archive | October, 2010

Holloween, The Mourning-After Poem

28 Oct

At a Halloween house party where I was one of two African American college students, I came to represent available, accessible sex. I was transformed from a sexual subject to object by the rap music and by the anonymous white guy who groped me. The rap music was so loud that I could not hear my soul yelling “No.” I felt hollow. I did nothing that night. I was consumed with rage. This is my mourning-after poem, my way of reconstructing and reclaiming that (body) part of me.


I still feel the echo,

My voice cursing

This drunken 6 ft. something

White man walking out

Of the door

After taking his

Football hand

To grab my ass from my

Rectum upward.

 

I came to the Halloween party with a halter

Spandex denim catsuit

Pretending

To be Foxy funked

Out in an afro wig and retro threads,

A black ghost

When I had my guts gored

By football hands

Thinking I was his

Foxy brown black whore.

 

I saw two blonde-haired twins in their

Pseudo-lesbian stance standing in

For the prostitute. Red-lipped Marilyn

Twisted through the crowd with a bottle of bubbly,

Her breasts bubbling over, her white skin

Blending in

With her white halter dress. I ad-

Dressed my Maryland

No-listen-to-hip-hop roommate why

She tagged her white tank a “wifebeater” without question, I asked her

What it meant

That her closest friends

Coming in as “Heaven” and “Hell” were free to take

Center-stage tag-teaming

Jeanie, Austin Powers and whiteman as himself

In a striptease dance

Which we all consumed,

Looked, laughed and frowned

Because we thought we were somehow not them. I wasn’t

Drunk, like them,

I sipped root beer.

I wasn’t high, like them,

I got off

From humming hip-hop in the corner

Screaming

From two speakers

From a homemade CD

The horror hostess called a “party mix” that I was mixed up in

‘Cause somehow drunken ass football hands

Who felt me up from the asshole up

Thought I was his real-life blaxploitation ho

From them 70s shows done over in them rap videos.

 

I walked in the house

Party with goddamn Madonna

In her ultra-mini, black lace tights, peek-a-boo tank

Surrounded by her

Entire blonde ambition, erotica entourage touring

All around me, but

Drunken ass football hands stationed right on top of me,

Right as

One of the number one raps raped me

In the background, I became (her)

Tone-deaf hearing

Nothing

But the curse

Words I could have said

If my blackness were not drowned

Out by all the white noise,

By drunken ass football hands

Walking up-

Right

Out the door

Hi-fiving his fratboylike buddies bragging

He finally got the opportunity

To fondle the foxy brown black whore

From his virtual

 

Reality.

 

An earlier version of this autoethnographic poem is featured in the journal, Qualitative Inquiry.

“Words Hurt”: A (Personal) Reflection on Bullying as Verbal Violence

25 Oct bully

It began as daily torture
and sickening waves of dread bellowing in my belly
with tears collecting behind dark circles in my eyes
too stubborn to fall.
I learned the art of holding back the floods of hurt,
that stung my eyes and soaked my pillows at night
from daylight.
They never betrayed me in public
and would wait
for the shame-filled walks from the school bus to the front door,
re-playing the taunts from the day in my head until I found a place of solace
to cry in peace,
to be in peace,
away from the judgment of peers too relentless to care about my feelings. 
The stress led to migraines in the fifth grade and by the sixth grade I had failed six times at my attempts to put myself out of my misery.  I never admitted to where all the weekday sadness came from.

They called me ugly. Black. Stupid.  Crazy. Itch-Bay (pig latin for bitch, because they said I was too stupid to know the difference).  There is little escape for a little black girl desperate to be accepted and forced to face the same vicious group of peers from kindergarten to the eighth grade
reminding me, daily, of everything
(supposedly) wrong with me.
I would have rather swallowed glass than face their scorn
but instead I swallowed hands full of pills that were not mine
wishing myself invisible
or to wake up somebody else
somewhere else
I spent years being angry with God
for waking up at all.

Words hurt,
especially
from the precious tongues
of girls not unlike me
but finding me
an easy target for their practice
of self hate, inflicted on me like
too many wounds
too many days
and displays
of harsh words
telling me I wasn’t shit ‘til I believed it.

The taunting still haunts me
and inspires tears when I sit in silence too long, or stare in the mirror too long
looking back at the
acne-faced
short haired
big toothed
dark skinned
flat chested
me

not smart enough
not tall enough
not good enough…
me

Teased for everything from living in a trailer
to the way I talked
to the cheap tennis shoes my mother could barely afford
to how I could not play basketball,
to how I didn’t have a daddy at home
from girls who
lived in single wide trailers
lacked my vocabulary
had the same shoes with different laces
excelled in sports but
failed in school
and didn’t even know their fathers

and who looked somewhat like me (regular, country, black)

but they never saw (or cared about) the damage they were doing
whispered words, intentionally loud enough for me to hear
loud laughing
waiting for a reply
that never came
because I didn’t know how to defend myself

They created hierarchical games
so that I would be perpetually last
Who is the tallest? The lightest? The smartest? The prettiest? 
I was always last on the list. 
My failings escalated them. 
I have never gotten over the trauma of those public ratings.

Decades later, I still hate remembering my childhood, and refuse to look at yearbooks or go to class reunions.  My memory never fails me.  And I am confused at the recent requests for friendship on facebook by people who refused to “friend” me when I most needed it, and instead stood on the sidelines watching me struggle to breathe.  The childhood assaults on my psyche followed me to adulthood.  And I sometimes still struggle with self-esteem.

Recent events of bullying have been popularized as media attention is focused on teen suicide resulting from teasing, taunting, picking, and bullying.  Bullying is in the national spotlight but it is not a new phenomenon.  Young people have always been punished by their peers for being different.  The consequences are ongoing.  Bullying is not blameless, nor is it harmless.  We have to take responsibility for the weight of our words, heavy like fists.

Before I ever started school I remember being told that I was supposed to take up for myself.  My grandmother told me that if someone ever hit me, I’d better hit them back–harder!  She never told me what to do if someone hurt my feelings.

(Not) About Jamal Parris: A Premature Critique of BlackQueer Conservatism

21 Oct

this is a repost of some things i am thinking through and have been for some time now.  lest we forget that the eddie long “scandal” is far from resolved, that conversation needs to be ongoing and intentional.

So this is the weird me. Trying to think about my continual relationship and disavowal of what is called the Black Church and what I call BlackChristianity. Personal in reflection by some more general claims, hoping to get somewhere with this theorizing. So as much as I write against a certain BlackQueer conservatism, I write against myself.  This is a follow-up to another piece titled “(Not) About Eddie Long: BlackQueerness and Social Life” written shortly after the news of the lawsuits against Long first broke.

A claim: BlackQueerness is the condition of possibility for imagining a new world. Its seemingly erroneous underside: BlackChristianity cannot kill this possibility and a place like New Birth may be especially productive for imagination. Given the fascination with Eddie Long and his particular alleged infractions, it seems that mainstream media has been fairly successful with depicting him as a tragic figure, hypocritical of course, monstrous as well. Because I am not particularly fond of him in general, reading about the alleged acts was not surprising, and most certainly sad. But to linger in this moment as a crisis of BlackChristianity – by simplistic assertions about the seeming erratic, excessive homophobia of the Black Church – is to reproduce narratives of blackness as excess and, thus, dangerous, criminal, fugitive. Blackness might be all of these things, but unlike most news reports, I think this is cause for celebration. To continue to read the conspicuous consumption of New Birth’s tragic “David with five stones” as a special case of abuse of masculine power is to quite literally dance over the ways violent masculinist power is reproduced in the quotidian, mundane, ordinary, everyday occurrences of life. If some of us can continue to step in the name of love without flinching while claiming Long’s account as a more seriously egregious fault reproduces narratives of queerness as some extra-ordinary, non-quotidian erotics that is hella problematic.

So to ask a tough question: are there ways in which intense, intentional homophobic rhetoric can create the condition of possibility for social life? Or, more directly, does the zone of homophobia remove the agency of the person subjected to such virulent rhetoric? Though I fully recognize the problematics of such declarations – they are inconsistent with biblical notions of loving neighbor as self; they are hateful and display a lack of finesse when exegeting biblical text – rather than focus on the condition of the institution in which homophobia is a part and parcel, I would like to think about how life exists in that space, how people create a space in the horrible confinement. Does the oral rhetoric become the occasion for “opaque acts” that are “dark points of possibility” for agential enactment?[1] This is important to consider because the Black Church is a space where a lot of queer folks exist. And we do not only lament the fact that we are queer. We feel sad, yes. Melancholy, certainly. Feel the rhetoric is fucked up, of course. But we also laugh and dance in the spirit, we wink and nod at each other secretly, we exchange glances and phone numbers, we talk late into the night and have sex early in the morning.  All of this contradiction and complicatedness exists and is a sign of fecund, fertile life.

I have spent time trying to convince people to leave their churches because of the homophobia. Many will not. As much pain is there, there is also pleasure. The ability to have pleasure in the spaces that try to make it impossible is important. For me to desire everyone to leave the zone where they have pleasure isn’t too queer at all. Rather, that desire is just as Victorian and Puritanical as Evangelical Christians wanting to kick us out. So on the one hand, the homophobic rhetoric is supposed to subject queer folks to feelings of hurt, shame, loss, abandonment. And though it may do this, it just as often fails. Something like Moten would say: the consent we cannot give to hearing the rhetoric we can, still, withhold. We have the capacity to withhold in us a certain consent to the theological, emotional, psychical violence we are made to endure. And having the capacity to withhold, we have something in us that persists.

So I wonder if notions of self-hatred are not rhetorics of subjection, telling people what they are supposed to feel, giving them a path (right on out the church; to an “affirming” space) previous to their having felt any hatred of self at all. I mean, I was definitely confused as hell about my libidinal drive when I was a teenager. I definitely wanted to be saved and thought being gay was a sin. But I didn’t hate myself. I thought I had a future. There was a theology of “struggle” animating my relationship with my sexuality. I always thought that I could be delivered and, so, life was in abeyance. Life was in that suspended space between the libido of the present and the deliverance to come. We give a lot of attention to notions of deliverance as problematic and struggle as bullshit. But what about that space in the middle where all sorts of creativity is invoked for one to name oneself, for one to build relationships with others, for folks to think a way out altogether. Having a problematic theology of struggle was, at least for me, the condition of possibility to think I had a future with unbounded prospects. Theology of struggle let me suspend the worry about changing as a necessity today, let me put it off for some undetermined future. It created a space for me to exist. So another question: are affirming spaces always (if even primarily) safe? And are safe spaces always (even if primarily) affirming?

Popular media depictions of homophobia evacuate any possible agential potentiality, rendering intimacy in these particular zones of contact pathological and impossible concurrently. The homophobic rhetoric of BlackChristianity constrains us with no possibility for movement, for contestation, for resistance (and this is not a romance of resistance). But I wonders if self-hatred is the only way to be self-critical, if self-hatred is the only possibility for remaining in a problematic space. Having read a variety of critiques of the Black Church as an institution, usually in the form of missives telling people to escape the backwardness of the institution, I wonder about the anxiety animating these ideologies. There seems to be a particular worry about the impossible pleasure in the spaces that are deemed homophobic, a critique of enjoyment. We’ve gotta ask, though, “why do you like it here?” And, given the way the performative behaviors of what “Black Church” means (the dancing, sweating, long services, loud singing, hand-clapping, foot-stomping, etc.) are very often physically exhausting, embodied actions, I am speculating about how a liberal critique of the Black Church at some interesting nodal points parallels and revises the rhetoric of persistent critiques against queer people. Are there classist and elitist strains grounding the critique of the Black Church?

A Pew Research poll found that Atheists and Agnostics have more “knowledge” of religions than “believers.” Notwithstanding the fact that I do not find standardized tests regarding religion less biased than I do the SAT or GRE, what really intrigued me is the initial reaction by many non-religious folks on Facebook and Twitter. I imagined those non-believers printing the research findings and walking in the streets dancing, singing, laughing. I also imagined believers printing the findings and having bonfires. The polling data, of course, is taken to be truth; it is text believed to represent flesh. One’s gotta have a lot of faith in the truth claims the poll data is making. But more than that, I am intrigued by the ways strained knowledge comes to stand in for those who are knowledgeable. Declarations of the backwardness of these religious folks were rampant. If they only knew more, they’d behave differently. This means that religion is some sensual, bodily, primitivist thing and non-belief is a cerebral thing. But is religion merely about facts and figures? Nothing of community building or relationality? Nothing of prayer? Nothing of transcendence? I mention this research because the Black Protestants polled scored second lowest on all accounts.

Problematic, though, is the idea that knowledge is merely a cerebral thing, that religion is not as much about feeling as it is about facts. And I think the feeling is scary as hell…because it can be so pleasurable. As much as the Black Church offends us (and for many reasons, “it” should), at least some of the anxiety about it, I think is created by a seeming need to shore up against the sensuousness it offers (this, of course, could be said for all religious tradition). I can think about this with relation to Black Pentecostalism. Once I became “enlightened” and “knowledgeable,” enjoyment became so problematic. So I critiqued and wrote against other people’s enjoyment and pleasure in the space that was so problematic. Rather than asking about the effort and intentionality of pleasure in the most impossible of places, I wanted to curtail the possibility for pleasure in others. And that’s not cool. My particular anxiety made me wary of the space itself, not because of knowledge, but because of feeling. Hearing a Hammond B-3 organ still gets me. The arpeggios and bass runs, the notes at the high register and the pace of shout music began to worry me because not only could I not easily explain what it does to me, I would feel compelled to dance along with others.

So maybe instead of forcing people to leave spaces prematurely, we can think about the effort with which people sustain themselves in the most impossible of conditions. Or ask why is it pleasurable to exist there, in that contradiction of rhetorics and incongruous behaviors? What knowledge is carried in heads, in hearts, that allow for this sort of enunciation of personhood. Jamal Parris is one of the young men who alleges that Eddie Long coerced young men into erotic relationships, exploiting power by way of material possessions. Listening to Parris, he calls Long a monster, says that he still loves him and wishes he could forget the scent of his cologne. He declares that he is not gay but confused. Are these declarations homophobic? Hypocritical? Or are they declarations about the limits of language that cannot fully describe a relationship that didn’t feel right?

New words are necessary to indict the words which we tend to describe issues of power, religion, erotics. New worlds can be created in the midst of and in response to the given, known, hurtful worlds. It’s sorta like when a preacher is up talking and the musician is “padding” behind her or him, playing “nothing music” softly (for a PERFECT example, http://bit.ly/bdERq2). People may be giving attention to the preacher but they very well may be engaged in an underground conversation taking place in plain view. Phones that allow for text messaging, Twitter and Facebook just make more apparent the fact of communication that have always gone on while preachers ain’t sayin nothin, while the organist is padding softly and necessarily backgrounding sound. There is social life occurring right below the surface that emerges because of the apparentness of the surface. How can we attend to this sociality? How can we think feeling as a mode of knowledge? BlackQueerness can get us there.


[1] Brooks, D. (2006). Bodies in dissent : spectacular performances of race and freedom, 1850-1910. Durham, Duke University Press.

How did I become a feminist?

18 Oct

This brief clip from the recent “Black Women as Public Intellectuals” symposium at the University of Alabama was such a wonderful interlude that it inspired me to reflect on my own trajectory in becoming a crunk feminist.

Like many, instead of fitting into a neat narrative, my feminism came in fits and starts, inspired by teachers and friends. By my wonderful family. By poets and writers that spoke my own internal fears and hopes back to me. By musicians that sang my dreams to me.  So in homage to the work of the CFC, and the legacy of feminists from which we come, here are just a few snapshots of the moments I became more and more a feminist. It’s not a complete list by any means, and my feminism is forged daily, but these were pivot points in my life. In the comments, please share yours.

  1. High school, Friendswood, TX: Skipping last period English class to help a classmate find out where the local Planned Parenthood clinic was. She was terrified. We weren’t really even friends. We happened to be in the bathroom together and she was crying, and I had no idea what to do. Being completely unprepared to offer anything by my research skills, I told her to meet me in the computer lab to find out whatever we could. That afternoon, she said something to me that I’ll never forget, “This should be something my mom or my best friends can help me with, but I can’t even imagine talking to them about it. Ever. For the rest of my life.” It would be many years from that day that I would take my first job working in the reproductive justice movement, but it was that day that understood the injustice of shame and fear.
  2. Sophomore year in college, in a class called “Modern Philosophy:” The class covered major enlightenment thinkers and, demonstrating the power of a women’s college education, my professor added text to our syllabus called, “Women Philosophers of the Early Modern Period.” The book included a series of letters written by sisters, aunts, friends, and lovers of the early modern philosophers we were reading in the course. In these letters these women share ideas, and help to refine the ideas of the men with whom they correspond. For example, “Descartes’ “Passions of the Soul” derives from his conversations with Elisabeth of Bohemia. And Leibniz wrote, “My philosophical views approach somewhat closely those of the late Countess of Conway.” Yet these women are not taught in most modern philosophy classes. What also struck me was the awareness that these women were wealthy, European, and white. In this moment, despite my unabashed love for the discipline of philosophy, I understood the systemic silencing of women, their thoughts and their contributions to intellectual history.
  3. Senior year of college, upon reading Toward a Feminist Theory of the State by Catherine MacKinnon: Read as part of an independent study on feminist theory, it changed the way I think about power and the law. I carried it around for weeks reading and re-reading passages. But I didn’t see myself in it — not fully, at least. There is a paragraph (maybe two) in the book in which MacKinnon refers to women of color and the divergent experiences they have. She admits that her perspective and narrative is limited, without making any serious effort to address this limitation. It was a heartswell and a heartbreak in a matter of moments. It was then that I understood the difference between the second wave and the third wave of feminism, in a visceral way. I read bell hooks and Arundhati Roy in the weeks following, and I found a deep and resonant solace in their words and methods.
  4. First summer after college, spent doing research on human rights in Cambridge, Mass: In retrospect, I learned a lot about human rights and international law that summer but it’s the poetry that stands out. Having zero dollars of discretionary income and armed with a Harvard library card (everyone should be so lucky for at least some part of their lives) I lurked around the poetry room in Widener Library every evening, and most weekends. That was the summer of Sister Outsider and Dream of a Common Language. I almost cried when the latter was re-called and might still have my copy of Sister Outsider somewhere (shhh.)
  5. Traveling to India for the 2005 International Women and Health Meeting in New Delhi. I went with colleagues to share our work on reproductive justice activism in the US. I met feminist activists from all over the world, and was moved by their persistence in the face of terrible state oppression. But it was the informal conversations with Indian feminists that are seared into my memory. Conversations about advocating for reproductive rights and choices in an international context; we discussed femicide and transnational surrogacy. I felt embraced, validated and nourished by those women and those conversations. We talked about feminism within the South Asian community in the US and my experiences here. We spoke in Hindi and English, alternating between the two without noticing. We shared stories of giddy victories and shattering losses, both personal and political. There I began to fully understand the power of history, legacy and the achingly long line of feminists and freedom fighters from which I come.

Now here I find myself — with these and dozens of other transformative moments that comprise my trajectory, alongside a group of feminist friends (sisters, really) who are unrelentingly present in my life, offering constant love, support and intellectual fuel (because feminists get tired, too, y’all).  Without them, I wouldn’t be nearly as comfortable in my skin and in my mind as I am today.

I’d love to hear your feminist forging moments and pivot points. Please share them in the comments.

On we go.

On ‘The Mean Girls of Morehouse’

14 Oct

Having gone to Morehouse’s (unofficial) sister school I feel compelled to comment on this Vibe Mean Girls article and subsequent fallout. In fact it feels kind of good to once again put this “audacity of parenting” thing on the back burner. Y’all ain’t ready :)

If you haven’t heard, Vibe acknowledged the fact that there are queer black folks in the world (more than CNN could do), let alone at the elite single sex HBCU, Morehouse College. The article profiles queer students who actively blur the binary line of gender and look damn good doing it. They wear their fierce so loud, proud and unapologetically they were dubbed “the plastics” by an ostensibly straight Morehouse brother of theirs.

The article title, while again evocative of a favorite literary device of mine, is sensational. It conflates the appropriated “plastics” moniker to girl identity which none of the students interviewed do themselves. They articulate a reveling in androgyny and gender bending that makes a lot of “straight” dudes uncomfortable, even administrators, hence the infamous dress code barring students from wearing women’s clothing (Read my thoughts on the dress code here). One student is interviewed while shopping in a women’s boutique in Atlanta and a store employee makes her shock regarding his attire known, providing a little more drama for an article already doing a lot by acknowledging the harsh realities of these students. What we don’t learn is how they are treated in the classroom or how daily jabs impact their ability to concentrate on their school work. A lot of them leave. Despite President Franklin’s claim of a Morehouse that accepts all identities, students that too obviously flout gender conventions have a nearly impossible time of making it on campus.

Looking at the comments section made me swear off them for good as it was filled with the most hateful language and threats. I attended school when Gregory Love was attacked in the shower with a baseball bat for supposedly looking at another student. My then ally identified self went 30 deep with other feminist and queer sisters and brothers to a panel at Morehouse that disintegrated into violence when folks tried to discuss the issue. This reaction is not unique to black people but the costs of homophobia in groups that are multiply marginalized are so much higher. If we can’t be at institutions that are on some level supposed to be for us, where do we go?

Morehouse may tout itself as a single sex institution but it is not a single gender one, as much as it may want to be. If female-assigned-at-birth students in the AUC can take classes there, hang out there, spend the night there (covertly :) ) etc. why can’t male-assigned-at-birth students do the same in the same heels and make up? If any group should understand the fallacies of looking a certain way to be treated humanely its black people. And yet, black folks are determined to traffic in a politics of respectability that does little but make some of us tokens for a power structure that not all of us can access. People wonder why King’s beloved community has given way as we increasingly limit the criteria for admittance. If the people who decide who has access are middle class, straight, Christian, black folks, that leaves a lot of people out in the cold.

That said, I get the nihilism and “do you” mentality of so many black folks excluded from “proper” blackness. When you know that people think and treat you as though you are  less than human why continually try to convince them otherwise? Why not just go for self?

The cycles of violence created in the name of “uplift” never cease to amaze me. If we truly want a different world it’s going to take seeing people for who they are not what you want them to be. Morehouse has a unique opportunity to engage students around questions of blackness and gender identity, to craft new black men and more, poised to create a better reality for many communities. We can’t afford to hold on to antiquated notions of gender and blackness. The future is fierce.

Pic of three black men queering masculinity at Atlanta Black Pride 2009

A Crunk Feminist Collective Roundtable

13 Oct

Check out a brief clip from a recent CFC Roundtable on October 7, 2010 at the University of Alabama. Featured in this clip are CFs Susana, Robin, Brittney, Sheri, and Rachel speaking in that order. Full video forthcoming soon.

What I Value Most

11 Oct

Yesterday would have been my mother’s 66th birthday. She didn’t make it to her 55th though; she died of ovarian cancer.  The tumor was the size of a grapefruit when it was discovered, three weeks before my college graduation.  The doctors said that she probably wouldn’t live four months, but that was only because they didn’t (yet) know her strength. She fought through surgery, chemo, a stem cell bone marrow transplant, and more chemo.  She battled cancer for three years before she eventually passed away.

When she died it wasn’t the furniture or new cars my brothers and I argued over, it was the family photo albums. We each got a stack of albums, mostly filled with photos from the time period we most treasure.  Certain photographs of ourselves with Mom and Dad, that “belonged” in a book claimed by another sibling were carefully peeled and relocated to one of our own books.  I’ve moved across the country every few years – east, west, midwest, and south – hauling heavy boxes of albums and loose photographs with me; I did a lot of peeling/stealing from other albums.

My favorite photograph, taken in 1979, shows me in my yellow Bronx zoo t-shirt, my back to my father, who was behind the camera.  He was almost always behind the camera, shouting directives (I know now, that I get that skill from him.) This photograph shows me at age 5, my face burrowed into my mother.  She hated to be photographed but always beamed on command for Dad’s snapshot.  Her hair was bone straight naturally, but this was during her days of perm, looking like Carla from Cheers. She carried a 15 pound purse, always in her left hand. All you can see in this image are the straps, but I know what they held – lipstick, powder, wads of tissues, a small brown Coach change purse (with a $20 bill stashed inside for safety), safety pins, a baggie of snacks like cashews or carrots, a baggie with Tylenol, Sudafed, and anything else anyone might ever need. This is a classic family photograph – Mom’s big hair and big smile and me grumpy and frowning, hiding my face so that only Mom could see.

My other favorite photograph was taken in 1944, when my Mom was just a baby. My grandmother (who I think I most resemble), also had a beautiful smile and the dark eyes I inherited and passed down to my own children.  I know that I have a baby picture of myself, hair sticking straight up, just like my Mom’s does here.  She used to complain about the cowlick in front – it was always cause of untamed hair in the front.

The tacky gold “frame” was a specialty of my abuelo. He loved loud, shiny things. I have photos of him wearing black and white striped NY versions of the zoot suite. He always wrapped the edges of photographs with this gold foil. I don’t remember my abuelo, he died when I was just two, so I all I have are whispers of what was, what could of been, and what should have been.

My family hid tremendous family secrets; I know now that most families do.  They are like ghosts that hover invisibly but are always present, whether or not you understand them.  For years, I asked my mother (who was Puerto Rican and 19 years younger than my white, Jewish father) why she wore a wedding ring, and my father did not. She simply said, we don’t talk about those things in this house. I was always full of questions that always got that same answer.

When I asked her how she met my Dad, she said simply, we don’t talk about those things in this house. When I asked her why she loved my Dad, she would stare silently and most often walk away. When I asked for help making a family tree for school, she’d only point to her few living relatives – her sister, brother, baby sister and my cousins, and would then swiftly move around, usually to go clean something.  When I asked her about her wedding, she said even more quietly, we don’t talk about those things in this house.

My father was also diagnosed with cancer, two weeks after my mother, and died two months before she did. After he died, my brothers and I rented a dumpster and started digging out 40 years worth of stuff from the basement.  I found an old, yellowing white photo album and ran upstairs screaming, “look what I found!” When my Mom laid eyes on that photo album, she said simply, burn it!

I hid the album, full of photographs of my parent’s “wedding,” it was more of just a reception. I learned later they got married at City Hall and had a “party” where these photos were taken.  I ran upstairs, hid it,  and didn’t bring it back out again until she died.

My brothers, who are 9 and 11 years older than I, made a deal. They took this album to share with each other, but I wasn’t allowed to bring it home. I think that for most of my life they just saw me as a little girl, and in many ways still do.  During one visit to my oldest brother’s house years ago, I filmed the album from cover to cover.

In my digital storytelling course, “We Media: Digital Stories of Race, Class and Gender,” taught last May at the University of Alabama, I asked my students to select a photograph that was meaningful to them, to do a photo exercise, a writing prompt to get them thinking deeply and creatively. For many of them, the writing from this exercise is revised into their voice-over narration. I ask them to bring an image that “makes you think and makes you feel.”  I then give the following prompts:

1 – Describe this image. Use adjectives, short words or phrases to describe the image.

2 – What do you see in this image? List the physical objects, use details. What’s in the background? Look closely at the image.

3 – What is the story in this photo? This photograph tells the story of…

4 – What is the story of or behind this image? Who took the photograph? Where did you get it? Where do you keep it? Is it on display on the mantel or your night table, or do you keep it hidden away?

5 – How does this image make you feel? When I look at this image I feel… When I look at this image I think about…

During the exercise, I usually do it myself. I use an image that is meaningful to me, and jot down notes while my students write. Once I used the image above (yellow, Bronx zoo t-shirt), and this time I used this photograph that I downloaded from my brother’s facebook wall:

Usually I just use my writing, revised into a one to two page voiceover narration as a demo (I like to model creative assignments for my students), and use this material to teach them to edit with final cut pro but, I never actually finish the digital stories.  I edited a “rough cut” (a work-in-progress) this time, and some of the students cried. But still, I couldn’t finish it.

But later in the summer, teaching 3 more sections of digital storytelling for the summer bridge to academic excellence program at the University of Minnesota, I did.  I shared my finished digital story with my students, after they screened their final videos, as an act of reciprocity – it takes a lot to share your story in public space, particularly on a public blog.

Sharing family stories, particularly the “secrets” and hidden histories, like I do in this video, are exposing. It hurts me to tell them. And I know that there are folks in my family that I love very much, who have expressed hate for me, specifically because of my truths (they disagree about the way my Mom feels about her marriage), and why and how I share these “lies.:  But, I think that it hurts me more not to tell. I know my Mom would be proud.

I think that my mother internalized and carried so much of her pain in silence and those repeated dismissals at my every question. I think that not talking about her truths, her life, her struggles, even to her own children was a weight she carried.  I think that she died with most of her dreams unfulfilled. She repeatedly told me that she wanted to be a stewardess (that’s what they called flight attendants back in the back), so that she could travel and see the world. She did fight my father tooth and nail to go back to college and get a nursing degree. She loved being a nurse, helping folks, and thankfully she did get to go on a couple global trips, but not as a young, single woman.  I think, honestly, that she got so sick and suffered so greatly because of the pain that she carried around inside. Pain can eat you from the inside out.

Inspired by my mentor’s memoir ghostbox, and his courage to create his own digital story about his past, I’ve been (slowly) editing short videos, digital stories, to sort through these memories, my history, my pain and my truths. Here’s my first entry: ghostbox#1: killer cancer cells.

I’ve realized that when it comes to the past, there is no truth. One person’s “fact” may have been a half-truth or straight lie told by one family member to another. The Truth is not the point.  The point for me, is to know where I come from, to help navigate where I am and where I’m headed, and so that my own children won’t have to learn about my life from a box of old, yellowed photographs.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

If you are interested in the pedagogy of digital storytelling on the college classroom, check out this article and video.

If you have the resources, study with me or take a digital storytelling workshop with Joe Lambert and the Center for Digital Storytelling. They do amazing work!

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