Monday, January 18, 2016

Packaging and Selling the African American Experience: Working While Black between MLK and Feb. 28th

On January 17th of this year, I was asked to do a twenty minute presentation at a Synagogue with a Jewish Reform congregation. This was not such an unusual request.

I often joke that between MLK Jr. day and the end of February, even people who didn't know they wanted any kind of performer discover they desperately need a black one.

When I first started performing, October and February would pay for the entire year. I could make about fifteen to twenty thousand dollars in each of those months.

Now, the folks at this synagogue are local to my home, so a goodly number of the adults and children have encountered me in our community at the schools, at author presentations, or at local festivals. I am not an unknown quantity to them, and they only thought of having me come because they were trying to figure out a way to cap their day of mitzvahs.

I was honored to be considered, but the request for what type of program I was to do was both typical and a little frustrating.

They wanted me to come and do 20 minutes on the African American experience.

This is typical, because apparently that is what is supposed to happen between MLK Jr. Day and February 28th in our country. For those who don't know, February is Black History Month.

I have no beef with black history month. In fact, I'm all for it. When I went to school, I didn't know anybody but old white guys had a hand in building our nation. Talking about slavery was uncomfortable. We learned statistics about slaves, and I think somebody mentioned something about Harriet Tubman and George Washington Carver, but that was about it. Oh, Martin Luther King, we heard about him too.

Madam CJ Walker
First African American
Millionaire. Inventor
These days, kids in America spend an entire month learning about black engineers, doctors, inventors, politicians, pioneers, soldiers, and such like.

I occasionally encounter bitter people who lament that there is a women's history month, Native American Month, Hispanic History Month, African American History month, and so on, but there is no white history month. For anyone who has ever expressed this sentiment I humbly submit to you that pretty much every month is white male history month, it's just that on special months kids are encouraged to learn about some of the other people who also had a hand in creating our country.

That is neither here nor there. No, the big question is how do you present the African American experience in America?

I have no idea.

First of all, I didn't actually grow up in America. I grew up in South Korea.

I didn't grow up on 'the economy' - which is what we army brats call anything that isn't on a military base.

I grew up on military bases until I was in seventh grade.

I grew up in majorly multicultural, multi-ethnic neighborhoods, schools, and communities.

The first time I ever witnessed kids separating themselves by color in a lunch room was on my first day of seventh grade in Lawton, Oklahoma. Talk about culture shock!

I grew up on military bases in four different states and three countries.

I grew up with a high ranking military father on military bases where rank was important.

I grew up with a really diverse group of friends. At no point were all of them the same general color or from the same general part of the world...even in Lawton, Ok!

I grew up in a family with three adopted Amerasian siblings

From left to Right: My nephew John, slightly behind and above him is my brother Joseph, (Jaslyn's dad) slightly below him, my mother, next to her my sister,Annie (John and Jeremy's mom), my brother Don, my sister Duyen, My dad, my brother Milton, my brother Darren. The little guy in the black and white sweater is Jeremy, my new husband David is on his left, I am seated, and I have Jaslyn on my lap. (This was twenty years ago, we've added quite a few folks to our family since then)

I spent a big chunk of my childhood surrounded by heavily armed men.

I spent a big chunk of my childhood living in countries where I could just barely communicate with a majority of the people around me.

I was in the first integrated class to graduate from my high school in Indiana in 1984.

I was the first person of color to win a small scholarship from the Optimist club in 1983 in Indianapolis, Indiana.

I lived near Indianapolis when its motto was, 'Keep Indianapolis Lily White'. It was what they called their beautification program back in the '80s, and they justified the slogan by pointing out that Eli Lilly pharmaceuticals has their national headquarters in Indy.

The seeds of the Klan run deep in Indiana, and it is a touchy subject.

I attended Northwestern University.

I was in the first integrated international tour of Wiley and The Hairy Man in 1990. (Linked to a recent production, not the one where I played mammy.)
Depaul University

I married a Jewish man.

I am a Unitarian Universalist.

When my daughter was little she looked Asian, and people often asked me who she actually belonged to or if I were her nanny or babysitter.

My son is attending university for graphic design.

My daughter is currently in a boarding school for kids gifted in science and math.

I'm a professional storyteller and author.

My husband is my business manager/agent.

That is my African American Experience.

Being black does not mean you are having some kind of monolithic experience that all black people have. It might mean that you are more in tune with random, difficult, morale sapping, injustice that takes a toll on African Americans in general. Luckily, lots more voices are beginning to speak out against these cultural and social soul killers.

Being pulled over by the police.

Being followed around in a nice store by someone because they aren't sure black people should be shopping in nice stores.

Being give a harsher sentence or punishment than a white counterpart for the same infraction because...that's just how it is.

Being steered into a higher risk loan.

Being turned down for a job interview because of your name.

I was once discriminated against in a housing situation. It happened to David and I when we lived in Chicago. I went with David to look at an apartment he and his friends were trying to rent. The renters took one look at me and made some excuse about why the couldn't rent the apartment to Dave and his friends. They filed a complaint, the city checked on the complaint, found that the couple was indeed discriminating and Dave and his friends were given a small settlement. First and last time that ever happened to me...though it didn't actually happen to me, just because of me.

My daughter and her new
favorite sweatshirt
My mother always told me that if I wanted to succeed in life I would have to be twenty times better than any white person just to be given a shot at what 'they' take for granted as a given. Is that true? I don't know, but I try really hard not to have to find out by putting my best foot forward as often as I can.

When I am asked to give presentations on the African American Experience, I suppose I could stand up and rant and rave about how many things are still wrong in this country, and that it shouldn't be this hard to just go about your life while black, but I don't, because to tell you the truth, my life has been pretty remarkable, fun, and exciting, and wouldn't I be some kind of hypocrite or ungrateful fool to pretend it hasn't. No, I end up giving the history of the stories I'm telling, and explain how the choices made in our country shaped the way African Americans told and shared stories in the oral tradition.  I make allusions to the fact that if we understand our history, it helps put in context why we are still struggling with the biases and injustices that still plague our country, but I don't bring my soap box to a show.

That's pretty much all I've got when it comes to presenting the African American Experience in America.

As we go into the future, it would be cool if the 'othering' of our neighbors was not such a given. We each have our own experiences. Those experiences shape us, mold us, determine who we are, but they don't give any of us the right to speak for every African American, Hispanic American, Muslim American, Sikh American, middle class American, poor American, Caucasian American, Japanese American...the list goes on and the country.

So, if you happen to be black during the next month and a half, share stories, start conversations, spread knowledge, and don't let anyone tell you what is true of all African Americans, or anybody else for that matter.

If you don't happen to be black during the next month and a half, share stories, start conversations, spread knowledge, and don't let anyone tell you what is true of all African Americans, or anybody else for that matter.

Happy Sharing!

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