Happy Birthday Billie Holiday: A Poem for Lady Day

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Today, marks, what would have been, Billie Holiday’s 99th birthday. Most who know me, know that I consider Lady Day to be one of my main auntcestors. I imagine she’s looking out for me daily, applauding me when I make my fiercest decisions, and encouraging me to speak my mind when I doubt myself. Her voice was introduced to me as a child by an older neighbor, Miss Madeline. Miss Madeline also happened to look a lot like Billie Holiday in her youth, and enjoyed sharing tales of having an affair with Billie Holiday’s ex-husband.

While there are many other titillating stories connected to Lady Day, her sexuality, and her addiction to the white stuff, I’ve always been obsessed with Holiday’s voice and the work she did for Black people. I’ve felt so connected with Billie Holiday’s story that I spent a year and a half of grad school researching Holiday’s career in music and activism. My Master’s thesis was called, “Is This Mic On?: Reclaiming Billie Holiday and Nina Simone,” and my project worked to uncover the multiple ways that both Nina Simone and Billie Holiday paved the way for and supported the Civil Rights Movement. Both of these women risked their careers and lives for the movement, but are rarely honored as the activists they were. I plan to spend some more time on my blog to extrapolate on this statement, but for now, I would like to honor Billie Holiday’s birthday by sharing the poem that opens my thesis chapter on Lady Day, “Lady Sings More then the Blues; She Sings Revolution.”

“Willow Weep for Me”

She haunts me

Willow weep for me

She haunts us

Willow…

Her voice stops

When their pen begins

Describing

Transcribing

A tragedy of another buxom

Black Lady/girl singer

Whose voice gets silenced

By the ruckus of ‘others’ addiction

To trope-laden fairytales

Where White is right

And she is just a Lady of the Night

Having love affairs with abusive men

Covered in white powder poison–

Unable to save herself

Unable to save the voice They love(d) so much

Willow weep for me

Hear that?

Willow weep for me

Juslisen

Willow…

She speaks to me (to us)

Haunting modern-day ‘fans’ with a story left untold

Though always playing

Over the clicking of forks and credit card receipts

Screaming, through silence, to reclaim her voice

From those who muffled it

With their Blues Lady/girl storytale

Listen to my plea

She has something to say

Hear Me Willow

I’m listening, Ms. Lady Day

Lady Day once sang the Blues

Lady Day once lived Revolution

But memories of those days have been lost

Behind the shuffle of Diana Ross’

acting debut

Behind Holiday students’ and supposed friends’

desire for 15 minutes of fame

while playing pretend

of ‘truth’ seekers

‘truth’ tellers

Weep!

I’ve wept, Ms. Day

For Me

For you, Ms. Day

And through those tears

And through your plea

I’ve tried to scribble down these notes

You’ve left for me (for us)

Notes of skill, of resistance, of courage,

Of will, of persistence, of Mastery

A story called:

Lady Sings More than the Blues: She Sings Revolution.

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Why I’m Not Spending This Evening with the Oscars

This evening is Oscar night, and I’m having none of it.

This is a turn of events from last year. Last year, I engaged in America’s pasttime of preparing for an awards show that has a narrow scope of what’s talented. In 2013, I’d  spent January and February watching all films nominated for “Best Picture.” I then wrote a piece  reflecting on the representations of people of color in these nominated films. I’d done this in the spirit of preparing for my BFF’s Oscar’s party, and it was an interesting experience. While I was disappointed in some of the outcomes, it felt fun being a part of the discussion. This year, however, I  (and my BFF) just couldn’t get wrapped up in the glitsy shenanigans of the Academy’s ritual of playing favorites.

There was a period of time when things were looking interesting for Black cinema (unfortunately, I can’t say things have ever looked so hot for other communities of color). Fruitvale Station, 12 Years a Slave, and The Butler, were all getting  accolades from the powers-that-be, and it looked like the Oscars were going to be integrated this year.  I was excited to see various Black actors and actresses, as well as Black directors and producers, getting attention for their work in telling our stories, and I thought I was going to see more brown faces at this year’s Oscars.

But, we all know what happened next. Frutivale Station and The Butler got no love from The Golden Globes or The Oscars, and most of the films that have been deemed most noteworthy are ones that I’d only watch on an international flight. While I always knew  the Oscars were not intended for me, it became glaringly obvious  when this year’s nominations came out, and the Oscars basically said: “I know we can’t use the excuse that there weren’t any Black films to nominate for 2013, but let’s be real, we only have room for one Black film this year… and every other year.”

I wouldn’t say that I’m never going to watch the Academy Awards again, but this year, I simply don’t have the energy to pretend this isn’t an exclusive event. The politics of award shows are  tiresome, and as Holden Caulfield would say, “phony.” Maybe 12 Years a Slave will win, and this will feel like justice for some folks. Meanwhile, I’m wondering when Hollywood will reflect it’s own geographical location– diverse in its people, stories, and potential. And then I wonder, if such wonderings are in vain. Hollywood wasn’t created for us, so is it silly for me to project such high expectations of inclusivity and variety?

Afterthought:  As I was reviewing my reflection about last year’s nominations for “Best Picture,” I had noted that two films that were nominated,  Django Unchained and Lincoln, were ones about slavery. This year’s “Black spot” went to 12 Years a Slave. I find it interesting that we are a nation that can’t talk about slavery in an authentic way in most forums, but we seem to like to watch it on the big screen.

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Happy Birthday Auntcestor, Nina Simone!

When I age into future decades, and look back to my 20s, Nina Simone will sing  the soundtrack. Aside from dedicating a year and a half to researching how she helped move the Civil Rights Movement with her music and her actions, Nina Simone helped politicize me. She brought me into my blackness in a way that no other theorist, or musician did.

Here is one of my favorite clips of Nina Simone. She is fly to the bone with her iconic hairstyle, anthropologie-b4-anthropologie dress, and out-a-sight earrings, all while singing, “Ain’t Got No… I’ve Got Life.”

Happy Birthday High Priestess of Soul!!!!

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February 21, 2014 · 5:16 am

Reading Race: Favorite Passages from My Favorite Books of 2013

This year has been a year for invigorating reading. Books, ranging from topics like  Black men and the prison industrial complex, women and writing, Roaring 20s fiction, contemporary fiction, Toni Morrison (she deserves her own category), and meditations written by my favorite author, made their way to bedtime and me-time rituals. When deciding my favorite books of the year, I selected ones that I’ve thought about the most since reading their offerings. The books whose passages make their way into conversations with friends and students, whose teachings inspire me to be more thoughtful, radical, or more brave. The books that have grounded me, and reminded me why I am who I am, why I am doing what I am doing, or need to change how I am doing things. While I read some books that didn’t directly address race, I find it to be of no surprise that this year’s favorite books all incorporate dialogue around race.

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3. CAN WE TALK ABOUT RACE? by Beverly Daniel Tatum, Ph.D

Can We Talk About Race: And Other Conversations in an Era of School Resegregation  by Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum shifted my thinking around my role in education. The fact the she simply wrote the book reminds us the necessity  to write and talk about race as educators, as well as the importance to talk about race with our students. I think all educators—regardless of the demographics of your students—should read this book, along with other works engaging in conversations around race and education.

   The most important idea from this book is Tatum’s ABC’s for creating inclusive learning environments: “environments that acknowledge the continuing significance of race and racial identity in ways that can empower and motivate students to transcend the legacy of racism in our society even when the composition of our classrooms continues to reflect it. What do I mean by the ABC’s? I mean, A, affirming identity; B, building community; and C, cultivating leadership.” Read the quick, but important 130 page book to read her explanation of the ABC’s.

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2. AMERICANAH by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche

The only fiction book to make it to my top 3, and the only author to make it into a Beyonce song, Americanah is a novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche that speaks to race, love, nationality, and familial relationships. The protagonist, Ifemelu, is a Nigerian woman who goes to America to study. Upon moving to the U.S., she not only finds herself having to adjust to American ways of living, but she also has to figure out how to navigate American race politics. She copes with her new relationship to racial politics on her personal blog. In the backdrop is the story of how she balances her Nigerian identity in America, while still feeling connected to Nigeria, and the peoples she’s left behind.

One of my favorite scenes is when Ifemelu is at a dinner party in Manhattan the day after Barack Obama becomes the Democratic Party Candidate for President. Liberalism is in the air, and there’s talk of living in a post-racist society. A black woman says she dated a white man in California, and race was never an issue. Ifemula, who has had her share of wine and white boyfriends calls nonsense, and says:

“‘The only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America. When you are black in American and you fall in love with a white person, race doesn’t matter when you’re alone together because its just you and your love. But the minute you step outside, race matters. But we don’t talk about it. We don’t even tell our white partners the small things that piss us off and the things we wish they understood better, because we’re worried they’ll say we’re overreacting, or we’re being too sensitive. And we don’t want them to say, Look how far we’ve come, just forty years ago it would have been illegal for us to even be a couple blah blah blah, because you know what we’re thinking when they say that? We’re thinking why the fuck should it ever have been illegal anyway? But we don’t say any of this stuff. We let it pile up inside our heads and when we come to nice liberal dinners like this, we say that race doesn’t matter because that’s what we’re supposed to say, to keep our nice liberal friends comfortable. It’s true. I speak from experience.’

The host, a Frenchwoman, glanced at her American husband, a slyly pleased smile on her face; the most unforgettable dinner parties happen when guests said unexpected, and potentially offensive, things.”

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1. BORDERLANDS/ LA FRONTERA: THE NEW MESTIZA by Gloria Anzaldua

Borderlands by Gloria Anzaldua

I’ve already posted some of favorite quotes from Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands in a previous post, and I see no harm in reposting another one from my favorite book of 2013. Reading Borderlands was like coming  home for me. In a book that legitimizes the complexities of being multilingual, multicultural, multispiritual, she writes as a whole person. She refuses to compartmentalize her multilayered self, despite having lived in a society that struggles living outside binary clauses. We are told you’re either this or that, but Gloria says she is all the above, plus more; she is mestiza, and she is whole.

 

“The new mestiza copes by developing a tolerance for contradictions, a tolerance for ambiguity. She learns to be an Indian in Mexican culture, to be Mexican from an Anglo point of view. She learns to juggle cultures. She has a plural personality, she operates in a pluralistic mode—nothing is thrust out, the good, the bad, and the ugly, nothing rejected, nothing abandoned. Not only does she sustain contradictions, she returns the ambivalence into something else.”

I am mestiza. I am Black, Finnish, East Indian, Scottish. I am whole. I am all the above. I am not other. I am mestiza. I am a believer of God, the earth, the womb, the sky, the water, the ancestors and spirits. I am whole. I am all the above. I am not other. I am mestiza. I am daughter, wife, teacher, friend, writer, student, auntie, sister. I am whole. I am all the above. I am mestiza. I am whole. I am not other. I have never been with a woman. I love women. I am in love with a man. I am not straight. I am not gay. I am not bisexual. I am whole. I am all the above. I am not other. I am mestiza.

 

** Choosing only 3 books for 2013 was not easy. Some books that would have made the list, had I done my top 5 or 10, are Dreams of My Father by President Barack Obama, Women and Writing by Virginia Woolf, My Foreign Cities by Elizabeth Scarboro, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America by Melissa Harris Perry, The Cushion in the Road: Meditation and Wandering As the Whole World Awakens to Being in Harm’s Way by Alice Walker.

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Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands/ La Fronteras Part 1: Powerful Passages

My book club read Borderlands/ La Frontera: The New Mestiza for the month of October, and since finishing it, my mind continuously returns to multiple passages of this brave collection of writing. I feel my formal education—in all its Women & Gender Studies/ Literature/ Creative Writing- Poetry emphasis glory— neglected me by not introducing me to her work. But, I’m thankful for a continuous informal education that finds such pivotal bodies of writing to study at precious leisure (double clap for Book Clubs!)

While I have much commentary for this heart-wrenching, yet beautiful piece of soul-therapy, I want to honor her words by simply posting some of my favorite quotes. You deserve the right to sit with her words, and transcribe them for yourself.

All quotes are pulled from the fourth edition of Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. Unless indicated, any italicize are from the author.

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On Language

“So if you want to really hurt me, talk badly about my language. Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity—I am my language. Until I take pride in my language, I cannot take pride in myself. Until I can accept as legitimate Chicano Texas Spanish, Tex-Mex and all the other languages I speak, I cannot accept the legitimacy of myself. Until I am free to write bilingually and to switch codes without having always to translate, while I still have to speak English or Spanish when I would rather speak Spanglish, and as long as I have to accommodate the English speakers rather than having them accommodate me, my tongue will be illegitimate.

I will no longer be made to feel ashamed of existing. I will have my voice: Indian, Spanish, white. I will have my serpent’s tongue—my woman’s voice, my sexual voice, my poet’s voice. I will overcome the tradition of silence. (81)

On Writing

“The ability of story (prose and poetry) to transform the storyteller and the listener into something or someone else is shamanistic. The writer as shape-changer, is a nahual, a shaman” (88).

“When I write, it feels like I’m carving bone. It feels like I’m creating my own face, my own heart—a Nahuatl concept. My soul makes itself through the creative act” (95).

On Being la Mestiza

“So don’t give me your tenets and your laws. Don’t give me your lukewarm gods. What I want is an accounting with all three cultures—white, Mexican, Indian. I want freedom to carve and chisel my own face, to staunch the bleeding with ashes, to fashion my own gods out of entrails. And if going home is denied me then I will have to stand and claim my space, making a new culture—una cultura mestiza—with my own lumber, my own bricks and mortar and own feminist architecture” (44).

“The new mestiza copes by developing a tolerance for contradictions, a tolerance for ambiguity. She learns to be an Indian in Mexican culture, to be Mexican from an Anglo point of view. She learns to juggle cultures. She has a plural personality, she operates in a pluralistic mode—nothing is thrust out, the good, the bad, and the ugly, nothing rejected, nothing abandoned. Not only does she sustain contradictions, she returns the ambivalence into something else” (101).

En unas pocas centurias, the future will belong to the mestiza. Because the future depends on the breaking down of paradigms, it depends on the straddling of two or more cultures. By creating a new mythos—that is, a change in the way we perceive reality, the way we see ourselves, and the ways we behave—la mestiza creates a new consciousness” (102).

 

Stanzas from Poems about the Boarders

“Wind tugging at my sleeve

feet sinking into the sand

I stand at the edge where earth touches ocean

where the two overlap

a gentle coming together

at other times and places a violent crash” (23).

“But the skin of the earth is seamless.

The sea cannot be fenced,

El mar does not stop at borders.

To show the white man what she thought of his

Arrogance,

Yemaya blew that wire fence down” (25)

“To survive the Borderlands

   You must live sin fronteras 

   be a crossroads” (217)

The passage that is rearranging some of my thinking …

“But it is not enough to stand on the opposite river bank, shouting questions, challenging patriarchal, white conventions. A counterstance locks one into a duel of oppressor and oppressed locked in mortal combat, like the cop and the criminal, both are reduced to a common denominator of violence. The counterstance refutes the dominate culture’s views and beliefs, and, for this, it is proudly defiant. All reaction is limited by, and dependent on, what it is reacting against. Because the counterstance stems from a problem with authority—outer as well as inner—it’s a step towards liberation from the cultural domination. But it is not a way of life. At some point, on our way to a new consciousness, we will have to leave the opposite bank, the split between the two mortal combatants somehow healed so that we are on both shores at once and, at once, see through serpent and eagle eyes. Or perhaps we will decide to disengage from the dominant culture, write it off altogether as a lost cause, and cross the border into a wholly new and separate territory. Or we might go another route. The possibilities are numerous once we decide to act and not react” (100-101; italics mine).

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Cultural Competency 101: Honoring My Name, Your Name, and Our Students’ Names

Each year, I’m excited to learn my students’ names. After receiving my class roster, I practice each one over and over again, committing to pronouncing each name the way their families intended for them to be said. When I meet my students, I plead that they correct me if I say their name wrong. At first, my students think I’m being ridiculous– for some, their names have always been mispronounced at school. After a short time, however, they get on board and correct me and each other when a name is mispronounced. My dedication to correctly pronouncing my students’ names is partly due to my experiences with my own name.

My first name is Kirsti, as in Kear-stie. My name has six letters, two syllables, and was easy to learn how to spell (this bothered me as a child; I really wanted a name with at least three syllables). To my surprise, however, my name— with its two syllables, and six letters—was not easy for other people to say.

Kristy

Curstie

Krisky

Kirsten

and so on,

became replacements for the thoughtful choice my mom made when choosing a name for me. While some accidentally mispronounced my name (that’s fair), there were many who simply refused to say it correctly.

“It’s too hard,” was a repeated excuse.

“Your name is actually Kur-stie; why would your mother name you Kirsti,” my British Art History professor told me (I mark his nationality here, because in the UK, Kirsti is a common name, but is often pronounced Kur-stie).

“Can I just call you something else?” a few have had the audacity to suggest.

As a child, people’s difficulty with my name felt like a continuous rejection of a part of my identity, creating the desire to rename myself. To make introductions and role-calls more pleasant, I wanted a name everyone could say, and would say—like Mariah. In elementary school, with the 90s as its backdrop, Mariah seemed like a doable name. With changing my name, I may have lost part of my identity, but at least I was choosing what others would call me. I could have been 3-syllable Ma-ri-ah.

Fortunately, as I got older, I learned to appreciate my name. I appreciated the story that goes with it—my mother looking at our family tree in the hospital (I was supposed to be a Jacob). Me, lying there mysterious, and nameless for a bit. My nana ‘encouraging’ my mom to name me after a Finnish relative. My mother choosing Kirsti, deciding to take the accent mark off of the final ‘i’, because she thought it would be easier for people to say. Kear-stee, rather than Kear-ste.

It’s a nice, cuddly kinda’ story that gets misplaced when people call me Kristy, or Kirsten. It’s a story of my family trying mark my Finnish identity, when many wouldn’t know, by looking at me, that I come from a strong Finnish lineage. But it’s a story that lost its identity when my professor told me I was wrongly named. And my name loses its story each time someone refuses to say my name as it’s intended to be said- Kear-stee.

I keep such personal experiences close to my heart each year, as I learn the names of my scholars.

1. Maria (Muh-dee-a)

2. Ismael (Eas-MY-El)

3. Dei’Ajhanae (Dee-aw-ju-nay)

4. Xochitl (so-chee/l)

5. Angeles (On-hu-les)

6. Damonie (Day-mon-ee)

7. Isileli (Ee-si-le-ly

While learning each student’s name, I try to honor that each students’ name holds a story of why they were gifted this identity-marker. When I don’t know how to say a name, I ask colleagues for support. And on the first day of class, I do what I want my students to always do; I try my best.

While Don Draper reminds us in Mad Men, that people often change their name, and have the right to make such decisions for themselves, we don’t have the right to change someone else’s name. When we take part in the practice of re-naming people, we are partaking in unwarranted power that creates distance between ourselves and the person we’re renaming. If we care about fostering meaningful relationships with each other, and especially with students, then we must not only learn to say names correctly, but we must also honor each story that precedes it.

Some people may say that names are just names- that I shouldn’t make a big deal over them, but I always will. Names are the first gifts we receive from our family—some who are alive, some who have passed away. We’re named after relatives, our family’s heroes, and sometimes, our names are created by our parents. Names begin to tell our stories, our backgrounds, and our identities. They’re afforded to individuals, regardless of economic and racial backgrounds, and we should all be afforded the right to have our names respectfully pronounced with the most possible precision.

For a more comedic approach on how ridiculous it to rename folks, check out this Key and Peele sketch that I first saw on the Deconstructing Myths blog. I recently watched it again, and new I had to share.

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En la Clase: What My Calavera Did at Night

She's Got The Mic:

Looking forward to sharing this awesome Dia de los Muertos lesson with my students, as well as with my colleagues. I also want to echo the author’s disruption to the “tourist” approach that is often used with multicultural education. Incorporating curriculum that reflects the identities of our students should be an ongoing, rigorous process- not a break from the “real” curriculum. Our students must be reflected in the “real” curriculum!

Originally posted on Vamos a Leer:

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