Saturday, January 19, 2008

policy and practical reality for the activist artist

i just got off the phone with my sister. the topic for this evening - gentrification. after attending a workshop focusing on the use of artistic expression (ie. dramatic body sculpting using boal's image theatre techniques) as a mode of discovery toward marxist policy shifts in the face of a seemingly perpetual movement in favor of the gentry, she holla'd on the cell phone. time for the huddle up and decompression like, "yo, sis. how can we use this stuff so it matters?"

i chose not to attend this time around. i have participated in forum theatre and cop-in the-head workshops before. i find them useful. but not for policy reasons. i find that these techniques can be helpful, especially cop-in the-head, for artistic and cathartic expression when confronting internalized oppression like the painful psychological and emotional space of those suffering from domestic violence, rape, and poverty. when it comes to the intellectual's hopeful journey toward policy change and utopian community shifts which over-turn capitalism, however, i find the process much like a scholarly stroll through wonder-land . . . a fairy's tale . . . potentially condescending one at that.

while scholars querry the possibity of a marxist take-over in the u.s., i am most concerned about how we educate masses of tenants to understand how to organize against illegal eviction of single mothers, who are often considered a liability to both standard rental and cooperative living spaces. i am also concerned about how we teach tenant rights so that renters know what the management company has a right to do and what they cannot. how do we teach masses of people how to file a motion in landlord-tenant court? and how do we encourage communities inhabiting rental apartments to actively protest marshalls when they descend upon properties on eviction day? how do we encourage neighbors to assist recently evicted families by finding space, and funds, to store a family's property safely instead of rummaging through it for whatever good might be left?

it's not that i don't find the scholar's work useful. i have spent years in undergraduate and graduate study. i enjoy the academic freedoms made possible in institutions of higher learning. i would not have had the time and space to cultivate my thoughts had it not been for such places. but i have also lived through eviction. i have spent hours in landlord-tenant court. and i am currently inhabiting a two bedroom apartment in a building infested with mold and mildew. tenants pay for toxic space here. and the landlord has no intention of rectifying the situation. it would cost too much. forget about the cost paid by the human lives on the other side of the brick walls . . . and i'm not just talking about the $800-$1450 folks fork over every month. i'm talking about the price paid in doctor's visits, or the price paid through lower life expectancy.

policy change takes time. red tape is thick and layered. but there is an urgency to human life. and often, scholars are too far removed from the allergies, pounding fists of marshalls, plexi-glass barriers between court officials and troubled tenants, and 100 dollar moving crews found in an emergency to understand this.

still, i find the work of these scholars useful, especially in the boal workshops, largely because if i, or another like-minded activist, can be present, it is possible to learn the techniques and effect change in our communities on an intimate level. we can create workshops and forums to practice de-policing our minds and hearts so that a change in action and thought is possible on the block. maybe. 'cause i don't think my neighbors are taking the train into manhattan, paying 100 dollars to be there, and taking it all back home. it'd have to happen here. and it would have to matter . . . it'd have to make sense . . . in a common sense kind of way. otherwise, we'd just be playing revolution with valuable time . . . time when folks could be making loot to pay the bills.

'cause when the marshalls were banging on my door, the only body sculpting i could do was the kind that put my small frame in the face of two body-building, mean-looking men with tears streaming down my face. and all that did was buy me some time . . . in the end, i packed my boxes and got the hell out of dodge. i was lucky. my things were not put out on the street. if there is a policy change brewing to combat that reality, it did not make it to my front door in time. and in the end, target and starbucks moved into the 'hood soon after me and my babies left. and a whole lot of people are customers.

the almighty dollar aint no joke. it's not games for actors and non actors. it's real life.

yeah. i will continue programming for outreach. and i will use some of the techniques i've learned to help bring folk back to love of self in a journey toward the ultimate love of community. but i will not attempt to convince them that these techniques will take them to the wizard, or that the wizard will know the spell to change this capitalist machine.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

revolution? only the strong need apply . . .

my daughters have taught me more than a lil something about resistance and revolution.

i used to think that being an activist was all about marching, chanting, carrying large posters dressed with catchy slogans, writing letters, and speaking aloud to large numbers of people. in high school, i read malcolm x speeches during class and held frustrating conversations with friends about conspiracies and strategic take-overs. in college, i considered outreach the best route to revolution, spending my weekends in dc's shaw neighborhood, taking the youth to museums, the zoo, the baltimore aquarium, and waking early on those mornings to pack brown paper bag lunches for them all. as a professor, i have practiced resistance through literacy and critical thinking campaigns. and as an artist, i choose my truth raw and bloody. and there have been times when i have been able to share meditation techniques with women who, like me, have experienced abuse.

i love a beating heart.

but my daughters have taught me more about resistance and revolution than any of these experiences. and while i find it daunting to imagine a world informed by my intimate experience of rebellion against myriad systems of oppression in defense of my children, my prayer is that my voice will somehow make it to the ears of some who will agree - there is no greater responsibility than the choice to nurture and protect the lives of children, even if you have only the time and energy for your own.

evidence (causes and effects):

for some time, i raised my daughters in d.c. we lived in a neighborhood called columbia heights. the neighborhood was experiencing gentrification. i sent my daughters to capitol city public charter school. the school claimed an experiential learning program, among many other highlights and cool sounding benefits. it was well integrated . . . white, black, and latino kids shared classrooms. the one concern -- the school was staffed by white teachers and administrators primarily.

when school administrators and teachers encouraged me to have my youngest daughter tested because she was constantly being suspended from school at age 4, i surrendered. i found myself at my wits end - recently separated and struggling, seeking direction and guidance - i surrendered. i knew it was a bad idea the moment i met the evaluator, an elder white woman who consistently referred to me as "the mother" when holding conversation with a third party in my presence. i could also see the error when i watched my child interact with the woman. she put up her guard; it showed in her eyes and body language. she looked back at me like, "and who is this you've got sitting here in front of me. do we know her?"

my daughter has seen alot. she has learned that not all adults are meant to be trusted . . . that tends to happen when a young child loses a parent to societal ills and intimate domestic warfare. i don't necessarily consider this a bad thing in these times. though it is a difficult lesson for a four year old, it's one that is better early than late.

at any rate, my child proceded forward with the test. when we received the results, i learned that she chose not to answer the simple questions; she got the difficult ones correct; and she tended to answer questions about word meaning and context based on the experience of an urban child accustomed to alleys, helicopter search lights, sirens, and dangers lurking in familiar spaces . . . like home. the results of the test marked her as a potential criminal. she was marked for occupational therapy, and an independent learning plan was put in place for her. this independent learning program exiled her from the classroom setting whenever the teachers had difficulty understanding her . . . or when she had difficulty understanding them . . . they also made her a special weighted blanket with sand inside pockets to put over her when she could not be consoled. they told me brushing her with a baby brush would soothe emotional disturbances.

we continued with this for awhile. the additional attention seemed to placate her anger. and then, the phone calls started again . . . "ms. mercer, you must come get your child. we cannot keep her at school today." by this time, she was being suspended every week. and i was crying at night . . . i would have to bring her to work with me, and she would lose another day of schooling. eventually, i was told that she should be placed in a school for "special children." the predominantly white teaching staff had studied this phenomena, and a school catering to the needs of career criminal four year olds was the only way. they also suggested medication . . . quietly.

i had become a parent to avoid by this time. my scowl, questions, and stormy walk sent the principal into her office whenever she saw me. and when i dropped my child off at school in the morning, her youthful walk of enthusiasm became withdrawn to hunched shoulders and a pout that spoke of potential violence and disruption, making the teachers' mouths twist into nervousness.

when they suspended her for the last time, i learned that the school counselor had used an illegal basket hold on my child when she would act out. it was illegal because he was not trained to use it. nor had i approved of its use. a basket hold consists of grabbing a child from behind and holding them close to your chest with their legs folded; the holder's arms are placed right beneath the knees. after putting her in the basket hold, she was placed in an "office," which used to be a closet - no windows - where she would turn over the table and scream. when basket holds are used, there should be padding on the walls for the decompression, i've heard. clearly, the child who has experienced this hold feels threatened and violated. the padded walls allows them to act out these emotions without endangering the self physically.

at any rate, it was only my confidence, literacy, and access to information which caused me to question the evaluation of my child and the choice of remedy. instead of following the independent learning plan, evaluation, and advice provided by the school and its counselor, i immediately withdrew my child from the school and placed her in a new school staffed primarily by people of color, many of whom were much older than the young teachers and administrators at her previous school. i had her tested there. no disturbances were found - emotional or otherwise. but these teachers were not afraid of her; they did not speak to her with song in their voices; they spoke to her with authority. and these teachers did not look at her with condescension simply because she had seen some struggle; they simply demanded that she perform well and rewarded her with a measured love when she did well.

i wonder sometimes about the many children who are medicated due to diagnosis and evaluation in our public school systems (both public charter and standard). i wonder sometimes about the countless children who are abused at school, because their teachers are not trained well. i also wonder about the students who fall victim to gentrification, populating schools designed for predominantly white students but attending them regardless because they are still in the neighborhood. and i am also concerned about the parents who have not had the benefit of being educated in this nation's history of oppression and resistance. those who have know that the school is not always right and that they have the final choice in how their child will be educated, even if they have to fight for it.

my daughter is now a thriving fourth grade student at a public school. she hasn't had to visit the counselor's office once. and granted, i have worked hard to get her to a point where she is free to unleash her frustrations through creative expression at home -- through writing, visual art, and performance -- i am certain that so many of our children could share her success . . .

if only we could become more revolutionary in our thinking, if only we could become more cohesive in our focus.

last week, my oldest daughter broke a house rule: she had a friend over while i was not home. i had her call the friend so that i could speak to her directly. i explained to the friend the importance of following my rules and why. i also explained that when i was growing up, my parents helped to raise the community of children in our neighborhood, that she need not feel uncomfortable because i chose to speak to her, because it is my responsibility to teach her what she does not know. and i believe that fully. though my daughter was embarrassed, i told her that i did this out of love. what kind of adult would i be if i simply punished my child and said nothing to her friend?

sometimes i think that we have become so individualistic and fast paced that we have forgotten what worked before. we don't have time for it. we'd rather retreat from the chaotic world whenever possible . . . it's more peaceful that way . . . at least for the self.

yeah. and you know what? sometimes i trouble the fact that i have difficulty dating because men don't seem to be too enthusiastic about dating a woman with kids . . . they would have to contend with someone else's children. and damn, these kids today can be wild. yeah, i will take it there, because it matters. our society is driven by an accepted reality - men leave; women struggle forward. i think it's all just pitiful and a shame . . . i think it is also a testimony to the selfish culture we have chosen to promote. and no one ever really feels bad about it . . . at least not enough to make a major life change. i mean, sure, people can talk a good game . . . but when it really comes down to it, communal intimacy is not a favorite choice; revolution is a poem or slogan for a tee shirt these days.

and i think that is so weak.

i suggest starting small . . . try looking someone in the eye everyday and asking how they are doing . . . try really hearing it . . . then try making an important choice that has an impact on the life of a child who needs love. and then, maybe, we can move forward from there.

i suggest living with an open and honest heart for a change -- sure there's more chance to get hurt that way. but there's also more chance for healing, too . . .

and i think that is so strong.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

anastacia still speaks

anastacia was caged at the mouth with iron bars and straps. a muzzled revolutionary in brasil. her striking beauty coupled with her intelligence and courage sparked fear in the bowels of pale faced men and women who thought her a pretty beast to ride . . . at first.

she spoke of rebellion in a language second only to the drum, and the short-sighted and greedy colonizers thought it best to cage the tongue, teeth, and lips, rendering the chords struck inside her throat meaningless.

they wanted her body, still.

they needed her blood to make new generations. they needed her back to carry the burden of humanity's violent desires.

they had not considered her eyes and the passion they sparked inside the hearts of her comrades, regardless of the perceived silence the others enforced.

she spoke rebellion in a glance.

so, they lowered her into the ground, burying her inside the earth, completely ignorant of the power of a solitary muerta in the minds and hearts of the living.

the inevitable rebellions born inside the mouth and eyes of one black woman only grew stronger for her transcendance of the mortal realm, haunting the living forever.

she still speaks to her soldiers, whether they have made the pilgrimage to her shrine in rio or not.

last night, i tore the muzzle from my mouth in sleep. though the pain of ripping metal from my tongue and the flesh beneath my teeth was great, freedom proved more precious.

someone blew me a kiss today . . . because i spoke. i felt the kiss flutter across the room and land softly on my lips. i smiled. and the rebel smiled back.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

and now i take you, most loving energetic force, to be my . . .

deadlines? how about live wires one must cross to get to the other side? a boundary the color of a love so true it blazes a throbbing line between one space of being and another, reverberating, echoing sound and light far beyond and before this life-time. thresh-holds, door-ways, and windows left open just enough for one to peer out and swing legs across to jump . . . not down to the sidewalk but into a completely new realm visible only as an abyss, the unknown, perhaps veiled in irridescent blue light, or. . . simply black with flecks of gold dust . . . equally beautiful but more intense for the absorbtion of light, begging the question, "will the unknown envelope me, suck me into nothingness to become a small blinking gold light in a dreamscape of millions of others just like me."

there are about seven days leading up to the moment at which i will sit in a newly born iyawo's space during his ita, where i will have my guardian angel pulled down, yanking me up into a fresh perspective not yet born but welcoming. a foreshadowing of what is to come . . . i will know which energetic force of the orishas claims my head - a reunion, a homecoming, a hopefully better understanding of ori and the walk its chosen. it all makes me feel what i imagine it must feel like inside that ripe discovery of heart-felt knowing, that intuitive understanding of one's true love, despite the current lack of existence of that lover's material self or full acknowledgment like . . . 'yeah, i'm feeling you, too.'

the premonition of an engagement without the ring. i cannot say that i am afraid. on an intellectual level, i understand that my guardian angel has been there all along, since the moment of my birth even, and that my ori chose that particular energetic force before i chose the forgetful space of living in this world, being trained up in the ways of human imperfection and inscrutible loneliness.

why being human causes one to forget the name and intimate secrets imparted by the guardian angel is a definite mystery to me. in light of that dismemberment of intimacy, i, like so many other strangers, have chosen to get to know orisha energy during circumstantial demand like . . . 'i am hot headed today; i wanna scream fire words at every passer-by and threaten to knock folks' heads off . . . oh, let me find that solitary mountain and commune with olofi. cool, cool. is that a third finger i'm developing holding this walking stick. my imagination? damn, this mountain is steep, and i'm gettin mad old in the process of climbing. am i crazy? no. i am just tired. go left, right. no straight forward and up. damn, i'm tired. maferefun obatala, etc. '

that was the beginning of my walk. five years later, i wait for the culmination of a simple seven days to know the inevitable . . . a more authentic me. i find it interesting that this moment is happening parallel to another one marked by a letter which has fallen from the birthing force i've come to know through palo mayombe . . . another about love but human and where i fit inside it . . . finally.

this is, for a girl-child destined to feel her heart strong, regardless of her mind's puzzlement, a time for lovers. and this girl-child, me, am simply petal open . . . like zora say . . . and waiting.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008


i've often stated that i can become invisible . . . not meaning the societal and political invisibility common for single mothers of color who somehow miss the nation's respectful nod despite the fact that we nurture the most valuable resources this country has to offer with little to no assistance from those who will eventually reap the benefits of the lives we birth and love. not that invisibility.

i have no cause to trouble that. whether the nation sees me or not, i am charged with the responsibility of mothering my children. and i am proud of the choice to meet the challenge. i often look at my daughters from a short distance as they rummage through the 'frig for sustenance or as they prep for a school day . . . i marvel at their physical health, the round cheeks, the strong limbs, the confidence in their voices. and i am amazed.

i have no idea how i managed to bring them into the world and sustain them here, even in the midst of what some would consider nervous break downs and strange choices, escape routes to nowhere but a full sized bed 250 miles away from them where i crashed for two years one weekend a month with the permission of my parents (thank y'all). though the one who owned the bed had no interest in my children -- they were invisible to him when he held me -- that brief and silly respite from the truth of my charge, and its weight, saved me from an oblivion beneath scattered drawings of stick figures and legal discourse mapping the failure of my first round of wedding vows.

there were eviction notices, court hearing dates, letters of resignation, and plenty of nights when i screamed through tears while the children slept . . . it is so intense to fight for air in your own lonely bed and rail against your heart's rebellion against its beating.

that was what forcible invisibility met when it found me. i refused.

the invisibility i claim is one i enforce. there is a space of defense against warring energies that requires that choice . . . i slide under the radar of hostile enemies to my truth and its brazen pout and sometimes silly smile nostalgic of a school girl crush on . . . life.

my phone numbers are always changing; sometimes there is no voice mail, a phone that just keeps ringing. no one knows where i live, except for a few who i trust to call before they come, or at least wait for a kind welcome felt through intimately crafted intuition: there are those souls who know me well, and can feel when i need them. no need for words.

but i can do invisible, seeking refuge in the whispers of spirit guides and egun . . . they hold vigil as i lay my body down on the floor in front of them. my life is the petition. and i am invisible at the river. if someone walked by, gazing at its bank and the swirl of the waters just beyond it, that one would not see me, though there might be a faint sigh passing the ears.

and there have been safe houses - doors with only one key owned by me.

slowly, i lose the contact information for countless beings i once called friends. and they lose me. it always surprises me when they return. i never understand why. my sloppiness is humbling. really.

three nights ago, someone cautioned a friend of mine to keep me from disappearing. this was spoken in my presence. and even then, i could feel myself sliding into ether . . . the friend who received this message later told me that its not that i cannot be seen but that it seems that my eyes erect a barrier between my most true self and the other, masking what is behind my eyes, the soul's window, and creating a picture of one caught inside some distant vision on the horizon. i don't always want to do this. it is just that having left my heart exposed to many and discovering its hunger lingering despite the juiciness offered to quench the thirst of those i chose to know (kind of), i became accustomed to veiling my soul (excpet when making art for survival and sanity's sake), giving just a taste and then becoming invisible, trusting that the mask and mirror would be enough.

and usually, it is. we are a self obsessed and bound people mostly. so who would truly care if what they got was subterfuge? unless, of course, there is some one longing for a true love . . .

a two step? i'd gladly share and forego the veil of smoke, daggers, and fire water i can spew to pass the time . . . sometimes wisely . . . but i've got to know, somehow trust, that the beautiful mess i've got brewing is gonna be felt and tasted with an abandon that i've not known in years.

trust. it is dangerous to do that, you know? except, of course, with god, and even then . . . it is all just a toss up but god gonna see me regardless. there are no tricks for that ONE. but a human? we'll see . . . i've taken more ridiculous risks.