It’s Columbus Day and I woke up kinda agitated. Just this week on The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, Larry interviewed Roni Dean Burren (CLICK HERE to watch) the Texas Mom who challenged her son’s textbook publishers for attempting to whitewash American slavery by referring to slaves as “workers”. It fascinates me how history can be rewritten so easily. I know this has always happened, from the time of the Pharaohs in Egypt to the second Bush Administration. If we are all brutally honest….we all do it. Think about how everyday people stretch the truth when telling anecdotes about their lives to make themselves look better.
I love the TV show The Affair on Showtime. The Affair explores the telling of an affair from the viewpoint of each individual involved in the story. It’s interesting how small details of an experienced event are slightly different when told from each perspective and between these viewpoints lies the actual truth.
To an extent, this happens quite often in the re-telling of historical events, but there’s a difference in “perspective “and rewriting history to make an ethnic group feel better about the origin of their privilege. Privilege comes with a price. Some of those who reap the benefits of privilege, often chose not to acknowledge the immoral actions it took for their ancestors to create that privilege, and prefer to just believe fairy tale version of the story. Some privileged folks are like some version of Carmela Soprano, the mob wife who lives in the big house with the fancy clothes, jewelry and lifestyle and chooses not to see the bloodied knuckles of her husband Tony and his buddies when they comes home from “work”.
Now, being in mixed company discussing racial issues like Columbus Day brings up many challenges for a person like me but I’ve always been open to answer the call of that challenge. When I was a little girl, my parents wanted me to survive being a Black Woman in America. So, my parents made it their business to educate me about the side of history that the history books have whitewashed. With their lead, I followed reading beyond what the racist history books at school told me and self educating myself about social justice and the pathway to acheiving Civil Rights for American-Africans.
My Mom was a unique Black Woman, because she totally rejected the concept of “The Black Church” she was exposed growing up as a Southern Baptist in South Carolina in the Jim Crow era and did not like the hypocrisy she saw in her church. In 1973, she joined a conservative Christian sect that created a multicultural utopia that rejected the concept of race and tribe based on color.
This conservative Christian sect created a new tribe based on their utopian viewpoint of Christianity. It’s interesting that the roots of this religion are in the Abolitionist movement and it was created during the reconstruction era after the American Civil War. Their version of “God” only wanted everyone to be his “Witnesses” and those who did would live in paradise here on earth together, all races as one, living in peace with the animals growing to perfection in perfect health. That fair society based in community resonates with my Mother, and she dedicated her life and brought the rest of us into that utopian ideal. At the same time, my Mom recognized that as much as she could protect my siblings and me by being in this religious community, we still had to deal with, learn to be and live with the consequences of being Black in America. So I lived in three worlds growing up. My black family world, my utopian religious world, and the “secular” American world. Being raised with the privilege of living in multiple realities, and embracing living in those multiple realities (although exhausting) have actually served me really well.
I left that utopian Christian tribe when I was a teenager, not knowing what life was really like in the secular American world without having a “tribe”.
In the secular American world, I’ve been the only black person in the room for most of my life first by my parents, then by choice. The first 5 years of elementary school I was the only black person in the school other than the one black janitor and one black cafeteria lady. In High School, there were a handful of black kids in each grade and when I moved to NYC I lived on the Upper West Side, the West Village, Chelsea and Park Slope Brooklyn…which were all mostly white neighborhoods.
I was well versed in sharing an “alternate perspective” with white folks in my community on race and gender issues, you could call me a kind of… racial ambassador. I was so good at it that one of my first well-paying gigs as an actor was doing diversity training for Wall Street firms with a focus on race and gender. I did that work for 6 years and it made me even stronger in my ability to communicate with well-meaning (and some not so well-meaning) and clueless white folks as we dove into speaking about what Americans never wanna speak about in mixed enviornments…race. When I’ve been the only black person in the room and the subject of race comes up, my multi-tasking mind goes to work.
The thing is, when I was doing all of this stuff as an adult, I wasn’t aware that I was walking around missing a piece of the trinity that worked for my mind.
Since I walked away from that religious utopia, I’ve had placeholders like work, relationships, fitness, self-help books, conscious dance, friendships. None of them quite work. Then I was exposed to the Burning Man community. They totally blew my mind at first then they pissed me off. I mean…who do these rich white people think they are!!! Going out in the desert to create physical challenges and raising thousands of dollars to do it…. so they don’t have to even use their own money to pay for their “spiritual awakening” they do “fund raisers” to build their camps enabling them to go on free vacation….. while stealing creativity from authentic artists and culturally appropriating indigenous people’s culture as their creative voice of healing?!?!!!
Now, I NEVER said this to anyone…yet when I was brought on as a “volunteer” for a camp as an unpaid “chef” (they did pay for my airfare, food, and accommodations out there) cooking for about 45-50 people 3 meals a day basically by myself for the whole time…including set up and break down (there were some awesome rigging guys at the camp who helped me set up and break down…but you get the point :)) that’s what I was thinking. I was pissed off at their “tribes”. They talk about “radical inclusion” for this thing that costs thousands of dollars to pull off (creating it’s own type of gated community in the desert)….it’s the ULTIMATE slap in the face by the privileged. I mean, for so many people of color (and working class people) in America the idea of creativity and radical inclusion isn’t even on the table because the main focus is maintaing the basics, food, clothing and shelter.
But, experiencing how people come together to create tribes with the goal of going to Burning Man, opened a window into how the tribes of the privileged work in supporting one another to not just survive, but to create nurture grow and support their collective privilege. The true “The Secret” is not only believing that one can singularly “manifest” whatever one wants to achieve, it’s having the balls to say it’s going to happen, the grit to take action, and having the support of a community who will support the idea and propel the it into reality.
I’ve noticed that when I’m on social media and mixed race situations, when I’ve spoken about being in groups for women of color that I’m involved in some white folks have said things like,”Isn’t that segregation? or I’m white, so does that mean I can’t go?” My first thought…”Why are you so narcissistic? Does EVERYTHING have to be about you?!?!” But I don’t say that. I take a breath and smile and say something like, “All are welcome and this is specifically to empower women of color.”
We all need safe space and now more than ever, Black Americans are recognizing that institutions have been working to separate us ever since our ancestors were kidnapped and forced to be slaves in America and we need safe spaces to be with one another in order to be in America and work toward the collective good of all. Now more than ever, we need both.
When people come together and create safe space, unity and power. They become a community that is able to thrive. If you look at Judeo-Christian Old TestamentBiblical history, before the story of the Tower of Babel, mankind was ethnically diverse yet we shared one language. Basically the story goes that the human race was united and proud of the technology they had discovered and wanted to build this big ass man made tower that could reach all the way to heaven where “God” was as a symbol of the world’s unity.
“God” saw that as being too much ego and pride, and that unity would have been too powerful and a challenge to his authority, so he created different languages so that the people did not understand one another. He separated the continents by water in order to break up their ability to unite again. Those who could…found one another, segregated into tribes based on the superficial things they shared, language and appearance, and found their space in the world. And that’s how we have different languages and are on different continents. The moral lesson of this is about ego, people putting stock in man-made glory and achievement (building towers in the sky of man-made materials) instead of investing in and giving glory to “God” or spiritual things. (CLICK HERE for a simple telling of a version of the Tower of Babel story).
The symbolism of the tower of Babel story makes my mind explode and for the context of this blog, I am gonna switch up the concept and take it to the next level.
There is a complex strength in both coming together in similar tribes, and coming together in collective tribe of humanity. The purpose of connecting to singular tribes with the purpose of self love, support and foundation, enables human beings on the planet to fully engage with and embody collective oneness with other tribes on the planet.
There can be comfort in being with those who share the superficial similarities of gender and race and spirituality. (That does NOT mean that there is full harmony within these groups.) For me, making time to be with people who understand the experience of being black and female in America and doing challenging tasks together with specific goals in mind is empowering and vital to my wellbeing. This is true for all groups of humanity.
I love being with my groups of women of color and with my women’s groups. I love being with my group of folks who are working in social justice and my running group, my hiking group, my group who go to Halyard’s in Brooklyn and watch The Walking Dead in the fall and Game Of Thrones in the spring on Sunday nights. And I love it when my different tribes cross paths and expand.
Being able to practice yoga in a safe space with other women of color is an opportunity for me to focus on my healing which allows me to deal with the daily racism I face when I am out in the secular world. It’s not about exclusion, it’s about self-care, empowerment, and survival. It’s not about excluding others, it’s about self-care and my ability to recharge my batteries in order to be and do good in the world.
When we are connected to solid tribes that reflect our human complexity, we are able to strengthen our internal diversity which builds our ability to embody collective oneness and have empathy for those who don’t look like us, and are us. When white folks question gatherings of black folks, I wonder do they welcome black people into their gated communities, do they think about integration as they gentrify the cities their grandparents fled during the great northern migration?
Our modern society values the vision of people like Christopher Columbus saying that he “discovered” America even though he did not, there were people living here before he arrived…and he actually landed in Hispaniola. Columbus wanted his tribe, the Italians, to be abundant, starting with him. As an Italian European, the Spanish saw Columbus as a part of the European tribe and supported Columbus financially to support their countries finances so that the elite of Spain could continue to live free and happy in their monarchy. Columbus is credited with creating a the North Atlantic slave trade. Yes, Slavery has always existed on the planet, Europeans did not invent slavery. BUT after Rome fell and Christianity rose, the Catholic church was essential in transforming the Roman slavery into the feudal system. In addition Queen Balthid from France grew up as a slave and became queen and was instrumental to outlawing slavery of Christians. Europeans make the conscious agreement to not enslave other European tribes using religion, skin color and hair texture to define the European tribes. By Columbus’ time, the Europeans made the agreement to only sell African and indigenous tribes in the north Atlantic slave trade and created systems to create false stories and untrue scientific studies saying that Africans and indigenous people were inferior humans in order to justify their inhumane economy based on rape, torture, incarceration, theft and a host of other vile actions.
Those false stories made a huge difference that we are still dealing with today. European ancestors created and nurtured democratic systems of colonization and gentrification and globalization based on the “buy low” “sell high” financial system that creates and nurtures suffering on this planet from the environment to human rights.
So this Columbus Day, take a moment to connect with your tribe and see the value of living in with, and honoring multiple tribes to embody collective oneness. Give yourself permission to embody multiple energies, acknowledging the power truth of authentic history, never forgetting the damage done. Recognize that the story of Columbus that we tell school children is a lie. We can be with our ethnic and racial tribes and be with our collective human tribe in one mind and one body. Complexity is the pathway to empathy, forgiveness and oneness.
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