My America STORIES OF COMPASSION AND COURAGE
MY AMERICA IMAGINING OUR WAY FORWARD Penumbraâ€™s annual civic engagement campaign invited stories about what America looks, feels, and sounds like for each of us, and about what we dream it could become. Sponsored by MPR News, My America reveals our mutual dreams, fears, losses, and desires through the power of personal narrative. Almost one hundred people from across the state submitted stories in response to our open call. From Roseau to Austin, from Prairie Island to Marshall, Minnesotans sent their experiences and hopes for America to Penumbra. The following twelve finalists were selected anonymously by a diverse group of thirty readers and joined Penumbra for three weekends of development workshops and bonding. We have been changed by your stories! My America is sponsored by MPR News and supported in part by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, as part of its Knight Arts Challenge. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundationâ€™s Knight Arts Challenge funds ideas that engage and enrich St. Paul through the arts. Additional support provided by the Bush Foundation and the Marbrook Foundation. A very special thank you to David Mura and the fabulous creative team at Carmichael Lynch.
MY AMERICA FINALISTS
UNTITLED POEM by the My America Participants and Facilitators We met up Saturday mornings like schooners adrift suddenly finding the wind, direction, moon path. Always good to make friends and hear their stories and to tell our stories we keep from the rest of the world How we really feel, even if it offends, or hurts those we love. We will tell the truth and this is how we will shape our new world reordering it, rupturing old skin, unburying bone, the teeth, released from clenching, made to sing A song, a battle cry, a tapestry of honey and hymn We are the stories we share from check-ins to dreamworlds and back again. We cry smile and laugh together Until we all fall down and get back up And up and up and upâ€”holding each other still Then hoisting us up, using our hands, clasped in a U to make a stair A ladder, a rocket ship. All of us flocking together. Upwards upwards up together towards sky, towards star A flight that look like us Beautiful eclectic perfect.
RUI RUI BLEIFUSS, MY OTHER AMERICA “Rui Rui you’re so lucky! I wish I were you. You don’t have to take notes. You get to ride the elevator. You don’t have to run the mile.” I hear that maybe twice a week at school. I have a rare form of Charcot Marie Tooth (CMT), a neuromuscular disease that affects my strength, balance, and sensory nerves. I live in two Americas. One America is my “normal ” life at a normal middle school. With no other physically disabled kids in 8th grade, I am a follower, not a leader. In this America, being able bodied -being able to participate and keep up–is the norm. In this America my friends sigh and say, “Oh, umm yeah, I guess... just one sec,” when I ask for them help. Last year my friends and I were talking about what we want to be when we grow up. I said proudly that I wanted to be a doctor. What came next was not so lucky. “You want to be a doctor?” said one of my friends.“You know there’s a lot of walking? I don’t think you’d be able to do that.” This friend of mine is one of the most progressive people I know. That’s one thing I really enjoy about her. Most of my friends are liberals who believe that everyone should have equal rights. They say they support the rights of LGBTQ+, African Americans, Native Americans, women and of course people with disabilities. They say they know all the do’s and dont’s of how to treat people. But do they really? Let’s say this was a test on how to treat people with disabilities. Should you…. A) Ignore them and pretend they don’t exist B) Treat them like any other human being C) Beat them up D) Make fun of them That looks pretty easy to ace, right? But in life it’s not A , B , C or D. It’s more complicated than that. A lot of people are taught the “textbook” answers on how to treat people. But when they actually encounter someone different, they don’t really know how to connect with them. Maybe the textbook should say, “People with disabilities like to do the same stuff you like to do. But don’t treat them like a person who’s able bodied. Don’t run off and expect them to keep up. Do treat them like a person who needs help every once in awhile.” Because we all do. Teachers at my school try to adapt things, but they don’t always know how. In gym class we play a
game called Capture the Pumpkin, where you try to get the other team’s pumpkins. My teacher tried an accommodation where I could go get the pumpkins, but nobody could tag me. That wasn’t fair for me or my classmates. In social studies we learned about the Civil Rights movement, but disability rights were never mentioned. I’ve heard that other schools don’t include disability rights in their curriculum either. Maybe that’s because they’re not considered as important, or maybe it’s because the disability community isn’t as big or outspoken as some other marginalized groups. I’m happy I don’t call that my only America. My other America is where I’m most myself, where I’m a leader, not a follower. Where I’ve made some of my best friends. “Rui Rui, you’re here! OMG, I missed you! Rui Rui, what do think?” These are things I hear in my other America. These are the people who support me and push me up to where I need to be. These are the people who get that I can’t always stand in the middle of the room without something to help me balance. When I ask these people for help they say, “Yeah, totally. You don’t even have to ask.” I swim on the Courage Kenny adaptive swim team. Everyone on our team has some type of physical disability, and every year our team participates in the National Junior Disability Championships. It’s one of the most encouraging and inspiring things I do. All these athletes who have physical disabilities come together and compete their hearts out. Three years ago it was held in New Jersey. After the competition my friend Bella and I were talking about her trip into New York City. My family and I were planning to go the next day. She told me that some parts of the city were really accessible and other parts weren’t. She understood that I would appreciate knowing about the long walk to go find an elevator in the subway, and that there were sidewalks without ramps at the corners. It was one of the most honest conversations I’ve had, and way more interesting than talking about who we had crushes on. The center of my other America is the week that I go to summer camp for kids with physical disabilities. There we all come together and live “#unlimited.” We have a lot of fun horseback riding, canoeing, ziplining, and doing the ropes course. Every activity is 100% accessible and inclusive. The counselors are the people who make camp such an amazing place. They genuinely want to be there to help, have fun, get whipped cream pies shoved in their faces, and break the “no running” rule to help our team win Capture the Flag. Even in this America some people with disabilities still feel pressure to act normal. But what is normal? Last week some of my friends from camp and I were hanging out. They brought their
friend Laura, a 9-year-old girl who also has a disability, and her younger sister. Every time her sister asked her if she needed help, Laura would force a laugh and say, “Why do you keep asking me if I need help?” The idea that a 9-year-old girl isn’t comfortable with her disability, even when she is surrounded by people who have disabilities, made me sad. I felt sorry that she felt such pressure to pretend to be “normal.” I wonder if she thinks it’s the worst thing in the world to have a disability. Maybe I am lucky. When I’m in my other America I feel accepted. My personality opens up. I become more me. I get to look at America through a different perspective and become part of a very strong and supportive community. I also get to park in the handicap parking spots, which is pretty nice during our Minnesota winters. I hope that in the future my two Americas become one. I’d like to live in an America where people who say that they want to include everyone, really truly do. An America where people genuinely
want to help you. An America where disability rights are important on their own.
An America where health care for people with disabilities is always covered by insurance. An America where our president doesn’t make fun of a
disabled reporter. An America where a 9- year-old girl–and everyone
else–can feel confident about who they are. DONTE COLLINS, STILL LIFE WITH RISING SUN for Sonia Sanchez after Danez Smith when the revolution is over & all the children return home with or without their bodies & the street curb’s bloody mane is washed clean of a fearful guilt & the night’s lungs thick with the fog-flesh of young ghosts have exhaled toward a blue & humble sky: whose song will raise the moon whose breath do we ask for in prayer which poems should we read to the bassinets whose name is left to hush the crying Akai. Kajieme. Ezell. Tyree. Deion. whose home will serve the plates & whose home will leave the porch light on welcoming a dirty face of mud & mean & mug who knows courage like cocoa butter is for all parts of the body
who will have enough courage & who is skilled to scrape the stomach of an empty jar & share with the whole block who got a love that black whose mother will crochet a new flag with the obituaries left in the pew whose humble & hollowed hands will find a rhythm a ritual atavistic & ushering the blood to move beneath the joints & who will add breath beatbox whose boombox can we balance through the bedroom window whose back yard will be offered as a healing ground whose grandmother would like help out of the house she is the only one whose tambourine can music a rainstorm who can welcome a baseline of thunder whose body will become a rejoice of thunder when the revolution is over & all of the camera’s mosquito bellies are bored with this blood how close can we hold our black & who will call this new close a crime call it a cry in revolt or in relief when the revolution is over how will we move our feet the police are gone we are panting in the street the children are singing a familiar song in a foreign land something about a hot-comb & a gun something about a black god raising a black son that their bullets cannot reach
REBEKAH CRISANTA DE YBARRA, THE GREAT CROCODILE: A PRIMORDIAL AMERICAN MIGRATION STORY I am as Minnesotan as anyone else I know; half Scandinavian (Norwegian) and half Indigenous (Xinka-Lenca tribe of El Salvador). Immigrants on both sides, my roots come from the country sides of the Midwest and the Balsam coast, from the waters of the blue Pacific and the fjords, from the bigfoot bluffs and the volcanoes. I grew up cruising to football games with white kids in pick ups in Austin MN, Spamtown USA; a meatpacking town where Indigenous Mexican immigrants processed pork for engorged American appetites. Where, on a hot windy day, the air is so thick you can taste it, pig’s blood and excrement and the sweat inside tears inside of brown dreams, living somewhere in the throat, an itch you can’t scratch. Where you hear the pigs’ screams as the trucks roll in, like Edvard Munch, like they already know their fate. My family cried when immigrant friends went home to Oaxaca with unidentified pig brain encephalitis. “Para ver al curandero,” they said. To see the healer. At home, and then come back, home. To be an immigrant is an in-between unknown. The Aztecs called it Nepantla, the in between haziness between one and another, like the horizon at dusk and dawn, the tremble between poverty and hope.
I spent some time traveling to meet my relatives in Latin America. I’d get the customary question, “Where are you from?” And I’d answer, “America.” I was always met with a fight that I was unconscious to as a 2nd generation immigrant. “Of course you are American, so are we all,” they’d say. “But where are you from?” And I didn’t know, because I certainly wasn’t the blond-haired blue-eyed barbie I saw on tv, and I didn’t know all the words to Las Mañanitas either. When I was exhausted or fell down and scraped my knee, I didn’t say oofta or hijoles, but a combination of the two! I’d say, “Ooftale.” I was somewhere in the middle, on the border, battling inside of the biracial frontera. A microcosm of white supremacy, violence, oppression, and neglect inside of one body. One soul. Lost. A spiritual warfare unseen. No, I didn’t claim the USA and it didn’t claim me either. My family was always nostalgic about their home countries, and wherever we lived just seemed like a stop on the way to somewhere else. See, on both sides of my immigrant history, there was no American Dream to get to, more like a nightmare to get away from. My Norwegian grandmother shipped back to the fjords from homesickness. Even now, President Trump, my cousins visit the Midwest every year and swiftly return to Norway because there is no way they would stay here. Why would they give up all they have there for the uneasiness of the USA and an uncertain future? Covert, unruly, unreliable to its citizens… My father had no choice but to leave El Salvador as a refugee. A country torn apart by US imperial greed; fed a million dollars a day in war crimes and School of the Americas torture techniques. A country of orphans left behind, like Lord of the Flies. The same ones used today with twisted faces to describe “shithole countries” (…Ooftale…) A place where Indigenous rebellion meets quietly in the night, or else, be silenced in broad daylight. Divide and conquer, conquer and divide; but just survive. Just survive. When I’m not sure where I’m from anymore, after all this time, it’s the land itself that calls to me from my ancestors. This is a story my ancestors used to tell… a long time ago water covered the whole world and giants roamed the earth. There were giant turtles, and giant fish, giant birds, and giant crocodiles. But there was no place for small animals, or flowers, or humans. One day a council in the sky said, “Our creation is almost perfect but we are missing something. We need a place for the small animals, plants, and humans. Who will build it?” One great grandmother crocodile stepped forward to volunteer. So she laid down into the water and rose up with her back. And the bumps on her crocodilian back turned into mountains and islands, and the cracks in-between turned into valleys, rivers, and streams. Her skin turned to mud and out of the mud grew the first precious flowers. Her whole body stretched from the top of North America to the tip of her tail at the bottom of South America. And on her back lived the People. We remember her name as Imix, Waterlily Crocodile, the great grandmother who gave her life to give us earth. And we call her Las Américas.
Today the land of the Caiman is ripped in half and she bleeds. And I’m somewhere in the middle, sewing the wound, covered in blood. Crocodile tears, smothered in lies that we have somehow not been here before. That my ancestors didn’t know these stars. It’s a Truth lying in wait, that we are NOT immigrants to this land. We are relatives. Waiting for reconnection, recognition. No somos imigrantes, somos indigena. We. Are. Indigenous. We are already American and the land is free! It comforts me to know when I’m feeling stuck in the belly of the beast, that my family somewhere in the entrails of the crocodile looks up at the same moon I see from somewhere in her heart. That my people knew a long time ago of nations not fractured by borders but connected by friendships. North and South, in the sacred 4 directions, in all directions, across humanity. Guancasco. Eternal fraternity of royal jaguars and resplendent birds, tongues out, dancing together in the in-between.
DEVERY FAIRBANKS, HOW BRIGHT IS YOUR LIGHT AND WHAT IS IN YOUR CUP? There are many important things to learn, if you listen; if you really take the time to sit and listen. It is common knowledge among American Indians that we must listen to our elders. When I was 24, I started to listen. After years of extreme childhood poverty and dysfunction, I was advised by elders to go to treatment for alcoholism, so I signed myself into an American Indian culturally-based treatment center, and that is when my life began to change. I learned about indigenous sacraments; the importance of cedar, sage, sweet grass, tobacco, and the pipe. The teachings of the sacred prayer pipe led me to the sweat lodge purification ceremony, which led me to the power of prayer, the healing value of humility, and homage to the spirits. This in turn led me to the language, our sacred first language. For many indigenous Native people, awareness of your language is the first step in our journey of healing. We are taught that everything in the universe is either animate or inanimate, and it is very important to understand the difference. For example, rocks are animate (objects). To non-Natives, rocks would be thought of simply as stones or pebbles, but to Native people rocks have a spirit; rocks have energy; a life force. Conversely, the human body is inanimate; the human body is like a cup; a shell that holds your spirit. Your body is a sacred vessel yes, but a temporary holding place that houses your spirit. We must understand, it is the spirit, it is the soul-- that is alive. In discussing the essence of human beings spiritual leaders say that “we are not humans seeking a ‘spiritual’ experience; we are spirits seeking a human experience...”
This is important because, we are a people who still contend with the legacy of our past, a past of tragedy and loss. For instance, it is important to know that, our history impacts how we view institutions. A good example is the educational system, which produced the ‘historical trauma’ of our past, specifically the horrific legacy of government ‘boarding schools’ which greatly affected our view of western education. In Indian country, everyone knows of the atrocities of boarding schools, a policy where children were legally mandated to attend and where every type of abuse was perpetrated onto them. Physically taken from their parents for essentially their entire childhood, this cultural disconnect did not make for eager learners nor joyful participants. As a result, because of the government history of forced assimilation, generations of Native Americans flatly refused to participate in the western education system. All of which resulted in our people having one of the highest dropout rates and lowest graduation rates, which in turn contributes to endless despair and dysfunction. Today, many of our children are raised below the federal poverty level; a dismal quality of life resulting from generations of missed achievement and missed opportunity. Let me share a story with you: growing up, my dad left before I was 10, and my siblings and I lived with our mom on welfare. In our community, many of the adults were alcoholic, so we grew up under highly dysfunctional conditions. As a child in a fatherless, poverty-stricken environment, I had low self-esteem, wet the bed, was sexually abused, and, most of all, had no dreams. Since we had little parental guidance, we could pretty much do what we wanted. I don’t know if I was just ‘seeking attention’ but I began acting out, running away, skipping school, and smoking weed. All of which got me in trouble, and I quickly ended up in the ‘system’ dealing with cops, judges, social workers, reform school, and gunshot wounds. By the time I was twenty-four I was homeless, jailed, and put in detox. At one point, with nowhere else to go, I went back to a house where we once lived, now condemned, broke in and slept on the floor. Remembered feeling very sad when I woke up, really down, with the stark realization of what my life had become— alone, cold, and hungry, sleeping in an abandoned house. In fact, I slept in several abandoned houses. At this stage, I was still a relatively young man, but I had totally ‘hit bottom.’ The best thing that ever happened to me was meeting the two elders; court advocates for Native people who couldn’t afford lawyers. Those guys, Chris from Prairie Island and Herb from Mille Lacs, spoke with me about going to treatment (instead of jail). A friend told me not to listen to them, that
treatment would “brainwash” me, and instead “just do the time and you’ll be out next summer and we can go partying.” But a couple things happened at that time. One was, in truth, I was really tired of being a bum, drinking, stealing, and living on the street. The other thing, there was something about the way they talked with me that made me stop and think. They were true gentlemen who didn’t judge, talk down to me, or shame me, and lord knows I grew up with a great deal of shame (it is said that shame has killed more Indians than all the wars and diseases put together). Respectful and understanding, they asked about my family, where I was from, etc. It was a very warm and pleasant conversation, and by the time they were done, I was almost in tears. Here I was, a streetwise, macho kid about to break down and cry. So I swallowed hard, gathered some courage, and what turned out to be an amazing metamorphosis occurred; I defied my friends and went into treatment. So when they say that the human body is just a ‘cup that houses your spirit’ they mean everything that happens to you as a child affects you as you grow up. Whatever goes into your ‘cup’ manifests itself as you get older. If you grow up damaged, the contents of your cup are damaged; if you grow up healthy, your cup is healthy. Enough cannot be said about the ‘Red Road.’ The Red Road is the name Native Americans have for what is essentially a whole new way of life, a ‘healing path’ that guides people in changing completely through embracing their culture. It is very important because it helps you realize your identity; literally puts you in touch with your soul, which is immeasurable. It helps you heal, adds wellness and light into your spirit, and if you stay on this path, you will replace pain and despair with kindness and compassion. Example: one of my first times attending a Native American religious ceremony I was nervous, but the leader began by reassuring us. He sensed our discomfort and graciously stated ‘welcome; we welcome you. Thank you for joining us, and don’t worry, we don’t care about your past or whatever you’ve done. It’s okay if you’ve never lived on the reservation or never been to a ceremony. It’s okay because the important thing is that you are here. The only thing that matters is, you are here now, in this circle, and together we are going forward.’ Hearing that took a thousand pounds of weight off my shoulders. It really made me feel good: at that moment something awakened in me; simply by people being so supportive of each other, I had found hope, something to latch on to. It was the beginning of a remarkable transformation; I found myself in a safe place, a safe, peaceful sanctuary where I could relax, let my guard down, be myself, and thrive. Thus, the ‘Red Road’ cannot be understated, because it isn’t until we are introduced
to prayer and ceremony that we began to discover not only our worth, but our strength. This is significant because as indigenous Native people in America, we have always lived in the margins, existing on the outskirts of society, wondering about our place in the world. In Native American communities, cultural traditions are used to heal and forgive. To help illustrate this is the story of the ‘bright light’ in newborn babies. People are naturally attracted to infants because tiny babies have a bright light, a sparkling glow, and a happy little spirit. Whenever a new baby arrives it is a very special time; everyone wants to go see the baby, hold the baby, etc. But unfortunately, as a child grows and gets older, that light may dim... regrettably, circumstances of adolescence can cause that sparkling light to dim. The values and prayers of the ‘Red Road’ though, help that brilliant light come back. Thus, I ask, “How bright is your light, and, what is in your cup?” Answer: by dedicating your life to helping people, your ‘cup’ can go from one of sadness and despair to one of peace and fulfilment. In closing, I want to say that all of this is entirely possible; in America goodness is certainly available. America is great because there is an opportunity for healing. Things can be bad but there’s a way to turn things around. In my case, I went from a homeless alcoholic to a long career serving people, and a guy who, just a few days ago (February 22nd) celebrated 36 years of sobriety. Thank you.
ISABELLA LABLANC, PROPOSED ADJUSTMENTS TO AMERICAN HISTORY CURRICULUM 1 My classmates sound like streams. They take turns reciting textbook quotations. Their words are garbled and they sound like a river current–swift and monotonous. I envy how easy this is for them, how light their voices sound. Because for me this class is heavy-covered like thick smoke on water. I’m the only Native kid in this school and I am reminded that school, to my grandmother, was boarding school education that stole you from home and told you to forget your headwaters. Why do I feel that legacy in this classroom? 2 American History class felt like reliving a thousand of my old lives. I was 17 but I felt 500 years older.
I already knew I was history incarnated, treaties and massacres made flesh. I knew that being indigenous in America means carrying history no one else wants to hold. And that’s why the concrete textbook felt hollow Because for every single leaded page glued into its spine, There were ten, twenty, thirty more that had been omitted, discarded in mass graves and prison cells, kept out of view in museum archives. I was tired of searching for these forgotten pages alone, of carrying my trauma like a secret. So I told my teacher And then my principle And then the Head of School I told them that American history takes bodies like mine and eats them whole. But instead of open ears and open palms the Head of School hid behind a textbook and a big wooden table and said I don’t understand the problem. This is an American history class, not a Native history class. 3 The bell rings and I bring my head above water. I’ve held my breath for an hour and fifteen minutes. This is my ceremony, my daily self-preservation ritual. Because when they told me I had no choice but to sit in this pressurized room, I wanted to scream, but I was afraid my lungs weren’t strong enough, so I decided to be silent instead. So today, I entered the classroom, the same as I do everyday. I anchored myself to the shore as my classmates cascaded down streams.
4 When I was 17 I chose silence. I held my truths close to my heart, I sealed them in glass so as not to crush them. But I am no longer 17, and with every year that passes and every time this country breaks my heart, I am a little less willing to accept what they wanted to teach me, that this history is not my history, this country not my country. Because I am no longer 17, but I am reminded of those who are. Those who are sitting quietly in classrooms, who hope there is a country out there with a spot for them at the table, a choir to sing with their voice. I am reminded that it if we are teaching them anything other than the fact that this country is their birthright, we are failing them. So maybe I’ll write a letter And I’ll title it Proposed Adjustments to American History Curriculum. and I’ll send it to the head of school. In it I will describe the American history class I wish I’d been in That every kid deserves to be in. In my class no one would feel small, or alone. No one would feel like this country’s history means they are not part of it’s future, because my class would be a Native history class And it would be a Black history class And an Asian history class And a Latino history class
And a women’s history class. Because that is my America, It is Native and Black and Brown, Christian and Muslim and Jewish. My America is queer and disabled and poor, and you can never separate those parts. Because my America is time immemorial. It’s trees that are tall enough to see the future, to see that we are stronger than the last 500 hundred years of trauma combined. My America is knowing that this land has known love for longer than it has know hate, My America is learning to remember.
JULIE LANDSMAN, SEARCHING FOR PRAISE AND TENDERNESS IN AMERICA Perhaps it is in the smile of the young brown man at the bus stop, who nods, when my husband and I pass on winter nights, walking our beagle rescue Moxie. Perhaps it is in the heavy white man a few feet away, Who, after six months, looks up as we pass, a break from his silent stare. __________ It could be with Tanya, in third grade,
who whispers about the gunfire,
“I sleep under my bed some nights
‘cause of the pop, pop, pop , you know, Landsman.
I’m used to it by now.”
“Do you get used to it, really?”
She shakes her head, so the light
in her beaded hair moves across the wall.
“Well, not when your cousin dies, your brother shot.
But it must be worse in some of them white schools,
if you not used to it.”
_______ It has been three months and the young man at the bus stop lifts one hand, says, “Buenas Noches!” and the older man who waits with him for the number fourteen, almost smiles. ______ These days we listen for a whisper of kindness in those places we have always called home. Perhaps there is a tenderness nurtured in escape:
In a church, a woman alone, her eyes glittered with tears,
or a coffee shop where someone puts on Cassandra Wilson
and everyone is soothed just for the five minutes
of “Where You Gonna’ Run To”
Perhaps tenderness is In Vietnam
Where an ex American GI struggles up terraced hills,,
to show the villagers how to search for
leftover IED’s, an American legacy
hidden in trees and rocks, grass and flowers.
With large and knowledgeable fingers he helps farmers break apart cylinders, clocks, metal triggers. Perhaps tenderness is in the attention of the uncles
who listen to him, follow his instructions,
before a little boy crawls from his sister’s side,
stretches his small arm toward something
that glitters in morning light, a treasure of red metal.
______ At the bus stop,
the white man in his new red and black lumberjack coat,
looks up, and for the first time speaks: “nice dog.”
The younger man grins as we pass by.
______ In a city park in New Mexico Four year- old Donny learned that his best friend’s father had died.
Donny held out his arms to take his friend’s sorrow,
said he would carry “all the sad” to the fountain
bubbling in the center of the square.
He walked with great care, small palms full of grief,
Tipped them toward the sun beamed water of mid- afternoon.
What will we do with such tenderness? Celebrate the beauty in the eyes of Stephen
who could not remember his name
in Memory Care class yesterday.
Mourn with Maria who is told to leave her home here in the States.
Her children refuse to go to school
afraid she will not be there when they come home.
Tonight, the man at the bus stop says, “How are you tonight?” in perfect accented English,
the other man reaches out
with a gentleness that pleases us all,
to touch Moxie’s velvet ears.
______ In a seminar room, Khalid looks at us under the brim of his blue hat. “How come nobody ever talks about love anymore?’ I say I think we are afraid of tenderness. He throws up his hands, says” Okay, give me a tender moment on the streets”. I say that one evening, in the middle teaching a college class, I found out that my mother had died. Lamont Wilson, a student, walked me to the parking lot, singing spirituals in the fading April light
just to start you on your way home,
he said, smiling,
leaning and humming into the car window.
Joy begins to open Khalid’s face. ______ Weeks later there is no young brown man on the corner, who spoke to us in Spanish and then in English. The white man shrugs, turns away when we walk by. Nights after and after and after,
no Buenas Noches, no good evening.
ROSETTA PETERS, AMERICA & STAIRWAY America America, a laboring woman. Sheâ€™s been at it for 240 years, trying to push out new life. Her promise. An inevitable truth. Her bistre belly round, tight with child sheâ€™s been here before many times her amniotic Eden. The nurse feeds her chipped ice. America stands, Marches through the sanitized arteries of the hospital. Beneath incandescent cold.
With each Revolution her cervix dilates. But this babyâ€™s breech. No crown, yet holy. Breaking water, America seethes. Shamed by her rapacious offspring, and the bleaching of their stirp sins. Her bistre belly round, Tight with child. Feverish now. Her children fight in the streets. Cain done killed Abel and left his body laying on the frozen ground up at Wounded Knee. Now Abelâ€™s blood hallows the river bed at Standing Rock. Can you hear America screaming? Our mother. A thousand tied tongues attempting to extirpate the bullets and bleed the old abscesses caused by the Cross. Will you sage the wounds on her body and weave a cradle of sweet grass and willow to hold her promise? because we are still here wiping the sweat from her brow,
whispering in her ear, to just keep breathing. Stairway I remember your first guitar, the first song you learned to play, Smoke, Smoke on the Water. I remember Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven came next. Rose, do you wanna smoke? I’ve got some weed, you’d whisper through my bedroom door, knowing I’d put down my book to get high in your abscess. With bastard hands and spidered fingers, you’d play Stairway for me. I don’t remember when the song ended or when you stopped strumming your homeless strings. Now, I watch you suffocating beneath oil and perlite, your teeth have become ash. You don’t smoke weed anymore; haven’t for a long time. You knock on my bedroom door, Rose, I need a ride to South Minneapolis, take me to Mid Town Global Market. I don’t want to go. I pretend you’re not sick. At least you’re not drinking anymore, but I don’t want to go. I can’t stand the sound of you puking in the bathroom, to watch you curl into the couch.
On the way, I cry to you I beg you to stop. Don’t look at me like that, you say, Don’t fucking judge me. I’m not, I lie, you don’t have to do this. Look at it this way, I’m giving you something to write about. I don’t want to write you like this, I don’t want to write a poem about addiction. I don’t want to frame you, little brother, inside that word. You are so much more. I’ve avoided my pen, let it accumulate dust, because I knew it would bleed your name and I’d have to carve you into my femur to keep you close to me. When we get to the Market you tell me to walk around, check it out, grab a bite to eat, you’ll be back in 30 minutes. Then you leave me. I pretend you’re not sick. I walk around looking at jewelry, I like the hand-made pieces, the art, the clothes. I cover my face with silk, and pretend you’re not sick. On the way home you’re more yourself,
or at least you want to talk now. You talk about building fences, buying a truck, getting back on your feet. You talk about buying a guitar and wanting to play again. I look down at your hands, your bastard hands, the ones that just betrayed your body, held the needle, told the lie. It was never warm inside her womb. I wonder if you can ever trust them again to make something beautiful.
ANGELA RICHARDS, A REZ GIRL’S POEM I wish to tell you a story. One that the old ones shared well before me. Her hands wrinkled by time she uncovers her face. In my America I know her to be TURTLE ISLAND. Once a dark and silent place. We came into this life as the first people. A star people, a buffalo people. We began with our metaphoric mind. Reciprocity, the life philosophy. Absolutely sublime. In my America I know her to be TURTLE ISLAND. Iktomni grew lonely as he stretched his limbs. Nanaboozoo walked this Earth, the same color as his skin. Sweetgrass and strawberries, Skywoman’s gifts. Despite us growing unworthy we remained her kin. In my America I know her to be TURTLE ISLAND. Vine’s words echo the patterns of space and time. The cosmological clash of your world, my world, the old world and the new world. “Let us not forget to remember” Unci Maka’s whisper falls onto deaf ears. Mythical, mystical, Ahistorical.
Oral history, written history, it is our story that survived since the Great Mystery. Drawn upon walls and described in wampum belts Caring to not misconstrue the story and carefully passing it down orally. The notches of my braids extend far beyond decades. In my America I know her to be TURTLE ISLAND. There is a woman who lives in the Badlands. She sews a quilt that represents our time on this Earth. Only in my dreams I dance with my medicine dress adorned with elk teeth. I come from the bloodlines of great leaders and great thinkers. Only in my dreams I stand with my buffalo robe adorned with porcupine quills. Crimson is my blood I choose origin stories over sepia toned framed pictures.
CHRISTINE SMITH, MY AMERICA My America started with a black and Indian mother, adopted by Norwegians, who had a child with a Jew and married an Irish man. My America was a place where what you see is not what you get. My family had money, they had jobs and cars and Christmas presents and school clothes, no one talked about the lights being turned off or not having enough food to eat. They also didn’t talk about abuse, physical, sexual or emotional, they didn’t talk about grandma being scared of grandpa, or cousins with eating disorders or dying from alcoholism. In my America I was told it was better to be white, Cinderella was white, Barbie was white, the mayor and the governor were white…even Jesus is white. In my America I learned it’s more important to know how people view me rather than how I view myself. Being mixed I could pass for anything and nothing at the same time. Being mixed I learned how white people saw black people, how black people saw white and how neither of them really saw
Indians. You can be part white but you’re not white and don’t act too white, and your definitely now a Jew because your mothers not Jewish. You can be part black, but you’re not all black and don’t act too black, and let’s not even talk about Indian, in most situations they don’t even exist anymore and since I don’t have enough of the right blood I cannot be a citizen in my mother’s tribe. In my America I can be treated like foreigner even though I am a descendant of the first people of this nation. In my America I had to pay for college classes to learn about my history even though my ancestors built this country and supplied all the land and resources for free. I have learned that those who have attempted to liberate us through religion, boarding schools and adoption calling us savage and uncivilized, are the real thugs, pimps and gangsters. Generations of genocide, rape and murders, secrets in our families, secrets in our nation. But now there’s a shift, a shift that’s coming like a hurricane, just as the ocean does when it’s filled with too much debris. Now in my America the warriors and the healers are coming forward and being born every day, they are walking among us now having been prepared for centuries. From the white house to Wakanda our beauty and power is being reflected and no one can deny it no uncomfortable or offended they get.
ABBY SWAFFORD, SICK DAY (I enter as MYSELF, but maybe I am AMERICA or maybe I am GRIEF for CULTURE lost and TRAUMA found. But I am ME.) ME (to audience) Today my lower back feels like a 45 year old man’s voice while smoking menthol cigarettes and drinking whiskey out of an orange pop can. There’s too much going on in that sentence, but that’s how pain feels when you’ve been stuck in your bed for days, too afraid to look at the world. I am afraid. Of falling. Of failing. Of living. Leaving. I want to leave. Racing through travel websites, blogs of friends, the kinds of friends that “have it all,” yet live modest lives with clean houses and clean kids who aren’t addicted to their pacifiers. I suspect I will never be the type of person who hauls her family to Santiago in a shitty van on pilgrimage to find self. Who works on an organic farm, but doesn’t get paid. Because suckers? The type of person that’s always had a home so letting go of one for a while seems ok and driving a beat up Volkswagen is quaint because it’s not the car you drive everyday. (There is a car now and I sit to REMEMBER. I look to REMEMBER.) Remember the yellow car? A station wagon, maybe, because so many of the cars were wagons, but this one was special because it had no bottom. In the summer we’d sit in the back and pretend to be The Flintstones.
Yabadaba Doo! (Limbs extend low like ROOTS LOOKing for water. My memory coming BACK.) My sister, in the back not strapped in reached. Down Down while the car was moving maybe 30 mph, trying to save the blue doll that fell. A yell from the driver, our mother, “Get away from the hole!” “You’ll die! You’ll die! Don’t cry.” That car didn’t last long, because most cars didn’t last long which is why I learned to walk without shoes on the gravel road. Because sometimes you need to leave. (break) While picking blueberries in the backyard, smelling of DEET and sunburnt skin, I’d carefully avoid the poison ivy leaves. Tracing a criss-cross pattern with no shoes, my toes missed the leaves, but always hit a burr or a root. A pick up stick, rock, or tick, and in any case half my scavengings would tip and my puny body would flail. Still, this memory is a good one, of blueberries in cream or pancakes, perhaps pie. The afternoon light against the dirty window that hits the ice cream bucket full of my haul. The berries remind me of beetles as they bump along being washed and sorted for leaves. I’ve never really seen a beetle. But I look for them in the grass before the bus comes -an hour and a half ride, looking on my side or my belly desperate to find something new in the yard. Our mother has been gone three hours already, up and off before the sun, and I have been reading about ancient bugs in Egypt entombed. There is a fight.
If my sister started it or my brother I couldn’t know or really care because there isn’t time since the bus is there and I’ve got blood running down my shirt and my arm and like most days there’s no one around to fix it. The bus driver tears a piece of paper towel of the spool in the front meant for oil and I plug it up. My nose, I mean. Kindergarten’s rough. We won’t go to IHS until next week because that’s when Bobbi gets her braces and we can’t afford to drive there twice. My nose stays crooked and that’s the story of my bloody shirt on picture day. (The memories STOP. For a moment and now I speak to YOU. YOU who is, who are AMERICA and DESTRUCTION and EMPLOYERS and CAPITALISM and THE END.) I know that’s not what you asked for, but my back hurts and I’m just not well. When I lay down I have memories of the orange pop can with the spider crawling out, reminding me not to drink because those were Dad’s secret cans for boozing and ashing. Sitting on cement still reminds me that men cry. And looking at rust reminds me of family. When I think of cars I think of yards because that’s where old beat-ups go, just anywhere. Cars remind me how seven people sleep in a single wide trailer and how my most vivid dream as a child is about toast.
Just. Toast. And the next day I was told by my brothers and sisters I was thrashing my arms in the night. I did not tell them why because everyone was hungry and dreams don’t fill bellies. Hunger tells me to run. To move forward. To find a dream. To find a job -any fucking job, that’ll pay the bills and leave the lights on and keep food in the fridge so I don’t have to absolutely count on the berries I pick in the summer they’re gone now - climate change - only store bought now, and I don’t have to eat only canned produce- with white labels - special indian brand and I can turn the heat over 65 in winter. I don’t need to bank snow against the house like an igloo. I can buy clothes with money I make and earn and save in the bank. But not today. Today my back gave out and you’re asking me when I think it’ll be better. Tomorrow? Or whenever the memories stop. (A phone rings. I pick up my phone As I exit. Lights fade on conversation) Can I speak with Claire in HR? Thanks… Hi Claire, I’m not going to be in today. When will I be in? Well, it’s my back again…
WENDY THOMPSON TAIWO, BLACK IS A COUNTRY For Atinuke Daughter, Although you are only seven, there are things about this life that you will need to know and it’s best that I be the one to tell you. One of the most important things you will need to know, that you will need to remember, is who you are and what it means to be black in America, to be black in America in this moment.
According to statistics, we can determine the length, value, and quality of black life in relation to the rest of the nation. According to statistics, the average black household would need 228 years to accumulate as much wealth as the average white household, black infant death is two times higher than that of whites, and black folks are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites despite us making up less than 13% of the nation. According to statistics, one might begin to believe that we black people are averse to work, no good with money, careless with our health, and bent on our own destruction. Falsehoods that white folks use to both chastise us and convince us that we can escape social death if only we cut down on our Starbucks and lottery spending, went to our appointments on time, ate healthier organic meals, and drove less suspiciously within the speed limit. If we did all that, they assure us, we’d be better, worthier people. Black and human. But they wont tell you that their rainy day funds were built on our perpetual underpayment or that their job security means our unemployment. They wont tell you that the protection of their children requires our constant surveillance and their comfort requires our containment. This is to say we have been socialized. Has your teacher taught you that word yet? Socialized: when a society decides it needs a social group to be a certain way—dominant, easily controlled, a distraction, disposable—it makes them that way. We as black folks have been socialized to accept the foreclosure of our humanity and in the process do asinine, self-defeating, harmful things. Like rushing to collect a white woman’s tears in public knowing full well their potential for getting black folks hanged, sentenced, or fired. Or letting debt get the upper hand over history and watching the sale of your great-grandparent’s house, the one they first bought when they moved west from Louisiana, right up from under your great-grandmother’s dead body. Or pardoning the people whose distress calls send so many of our people to the morgue. At once, these things tell us that we are both lucky to be alive and that there is nowhere safe in this nation for me to raise you and for you to be a black child. By now, I know that safety belongs to white people but that doesn’t mean I don’t also wish for you and your brother to be safe. And by safe, I mean a place where you will not be robbed of your individuality and wrapped around white people’s assumptions; punished for white people’s fears. By safe, I mean a place where you can wear your hair—each strand kinetic, an orb of blackness suspended around your head, your crown of glory—without messy uninvited hands going through it like a tactile exhibit or a piece of public art. By safe, I mean a place where I don’t have to tell you that another black person was killed today by the police—yes, like that officer who was invited to talk
to your school today about public safety. Since its inception, this country has been a black horror story where we black people play both the one black character who we all know will be the first to die and the audience that shouts at the soon-to-be-dead character. As black people, our national anthem is: “Just leave, just leave! Don’t save nobody, don’t go back and rescue that white girl, they gone kill you. Just leave!” We are a people written and ruined by trauma. We are a people requiring an apology and awaiting reimbursement. We are a people struggling to throw off the chains of slavery while being thousands of dollars and years and single-family homes and good neighborhoods and secure jobs and lifetimes and futures in debt. When white broadcast journalists and public radio hosts say there are two Americas, believe them. Black is a country. Black is a country. Black is our country. As a parent, I, like many other parents, carry within me a deep sense of responsibility, of duty, to teach and love and protect my children. To share my own appreciation of delicious stories and black music and world adventure and Asian food. To keep little fingers away from electrical outlets. To lock the Comet away from curious tongues. To shape my children’s sense of language, self, and belonging in the world. But unlike white parents who can shut out the dark, who have tools (weapons?) to banish convenient and distant monsters, and the luxury to protect their children from harm—both imaginary and malignant—I have to cause my children harm in preparation for the violence those same white parents and their white children will inflict upon them. For it is white people who imagine me and my children as their monsters and our blackness that they require to function as an indicator of social death that cannot be moved unless we want to dismantle the order of the entire universe. And so I have had to be preemptive with my daughter, poisoning the gentleness of bedtime stories with abrupt details of what having a black body can get you (killed). What happened? They killed him and left his body in the street.
Why? He turned and ran. He wouldn’t get out of the car. Someone thought he had a gun. He was black. After awhile the stories bleed together but the thing that doesn’t change is the color of the bodies. On car rides, my daughter has gotten used to the frantic chord of my voice as I tell her how white people will likely perceive her and how white people’s perceptions, reinforced by the deadly force of the police, can never shape the interiority of our world, the clay and warm earth of our affection, the textured feel of our humor, the hollow wet rot of our disappointed anger. I have even given her that word to hold—you know the one. She has had it now for some time, balanced in the palm of her hand like a small stone. Occasionally she rolls it around, inspecting its shape and color. They will use it. I tell her. Even if it never leaves their lips. I am aware that what I am doing is eroding the sweet outer baby skin of innocence. Peeling it back, layer by layer and letting it bleed a little underneath knowing it will harden and callus. Scar. But this is what it feels like to prepare one’s child for a world in which they will always be unprotected. This is what “innocence is for white people” looks like. And if there is one thing worse than being black in America, it is being an unprepared black parent in America. Had I done nothing, how soon would it have been before they taught my daughter that she had no history? That her actions, identical to that of her white peers, were a problem? How soon would it have been before they gave her that word, pelting it into her back, like a bullet, unconcerned with her aptitude, talent, or dreams? But you’re telling me that at least my daughter would have had her innocence. At night, before my daughter goes to bed we lie together and read books about life beneath the ocean, the surface of planets, and the wishes and fears of talking animals, moving through imagined worlds where our bodies aren’t targets or weapons but warm natural things. Sometimes we watch videos of astronauts giving tours of international space stations and marvel at how they brush their teeth and sleep in zero gravity. This is the sovereignty of quiet, before sleep. A time when no one is suspiciously watching us shop in the grocery store aisle; no one is interrupting us and stealing our words, dismissing our pain. We are able to drink a cup of milk and undress and brush teeth and kiss and complain of the cold without thinking constantly, incessantly about what it
means to be black in America; to think about how complicated and terrible and beautiful and fragile it really is. We are able to simply concern ourselves with the immediate effort of dreaming. No long labor of explaining to others how we remain on the outside of freedom, no reminder of how lucky we are to be alive in a nation where there is nowhere safe. Just a house gradually filled with the sound of breathing, the slow rise and collapse of the chest, our dreams unfurling all around us, wild, rich, infinite. ______ 1
Joshua Holland, “The Average Black Family Would Need 228 Years to Build the Wealth of a White
Family Today,” The Nation, August 8, 2016 2
US Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, https://minorityhealth.
GLITTER SQUIRREL, BLUE PLASTIC CHAIRS MN Correctional Facility Inmate The first day of prison is the longest. The unheated van that brings me to the prison pulls into a garage. The three of us–there are two other women with me–shuffle in wearing handcuffs to “intake,” where we are un-cuffed and put into separate holding cells. A holding cell is a small room with a narrow metal “bed” held up by brackets, and a stainless steel toilet and sink. In my holding cell, the toilet is clogged and has toilet paper in it. There is a small window about four inches across by 20 inches tall that is covered with tan plastic shower-curtain material on the locked door. The wall interior is covered with six by six manila-painted cement tiles. Manila seems to be the favorite color of the DOC. I am cold. We arrive in the third week of January wearing nothing by navy cotton scrubs, underwear, sweat socks and cheap plastic shower shoes. We wait in the holding cells for a good thirty minutes. When the doors open, two female guards come in wearing blue gloves to conduct a strip search. This involves taking off my scrubs, bra, socks, and underwear piece by piece and handing it to them. They go through the clothes by patting them down and shaking them. Once I am naked, I am asked to bend at the waist and run my fingers through my hair. I am asked to show the area behind my
ears, and to open my mouth and lift up my tongue. I have to lift up my hands and arms and show them the bottoms of my feet, and then squat and cough three times. Then I am given a “new” pair of old grey prison scrubs and a different pair of shower shoes. The guards leave. I wait. Clearly, I am on their time now. After twenty more minutes, a guard opens the door and takes me into a small room where I am weighed (142lb), asked questions about any scars (one on my right knee), and to disclose any tattoos I might have (zero). They ask about contact information. When I was first brought to county jail, the officers had more inquiries. I was asked several questions that I felt were personally insulting. “Do you have any gang affiliations?” “Excuse me?” “Do you have any gang affiliations?” “No, of course not.” “Do you have any racial prejudice?” “What?” “Any problems with other people?” “No, of course not.” Although they were just doing this job, their line of questioning blew their mind. I’m a white 44 yearold who majored in dance & theatre. Raised in the suburbs, my hobbies include perennial gardening and recycling. The only gang activity I‘ve been exposed to was in West Side Story. Their questions startled me because, to my knowledge, I have never been looked at as a bad or mean person. Now everyone seems to think the worst of me, and that hurts my feelings. Today these guards don’t seem concerned with my belief system or my feelings. They just want the name and number of who to call if they have to call someone. They take my picture, front-view and side. They roll my fingers with blue ink to put my fingerprints in a national database. I am asked if I want a “regular” or “alternative” tray of food. I am glad there are options here. I’m a vegetarian and in country jail I was fed unseasoned beans, a scoop of white rice, a scoop of mushy vegetables, and white bread. Every day. A woman from the kitchen brings in a tray with Caribbean beans, green beans, an apple and iceberg lettuce. I hadn’t eaten lettuce in 14 months. Prison food is much better than jail food. With prison lunch tray in hand, I am back in the cell.
Eventually another guard opens the door and walks me down to the “Property window.” Here I am asked my sizes (medium) and given a rippled plastic laundry basket containing: • one pair of khaki pants • two elastic-waist jeans • one long sleeve denim shirt • two grey tee shirts • a bundle of six pairs of socks • a bundle of six white cotton elastic-waist underwear • one blue coat • one thin, neon-orange hat • one pair of state-issue tennis shoes: white, plastic, and heavy I am told to try on everything to see if it fits, and sent to a closet-sized room containing a blue plastic chair and a narrow table. I try on everything. I go back to the Property window. The officers take away the laundry basket and I put my clothes–that I’m not wearing–into a white mesh laundry bag. I am then walked over to “Medical.” The other two women that I arrived with eventually join me. We sit in a square room lined with blue plastic chairs where there are other women waiting for their appointments. Everybody knows we are new because we sit with a laundry bag of clothes. We wait for two more hours. When called, I meet with a nurse who takes my vitals, gives me a Mantoux test, and a quick vision test. The whole procedure takes five minutes. Back to medical lobby. It’s around three o’clock, and I’ve been in prison for about six hours. The first weeks in prison feel like the first week of seventh grade when everything’s unfamiliar and you’re trying to figure out the logistics of a new system. The only difference is you’re not as concerned with making friends, as making and avoiding enemies. I spend my days trying to follow the rules and to do what I am supposed to. It is weird sleeping in a room with strangers. Much like a strip search, it feels unnatural. During the first few weeks, I go through “R&O”–Receiving and Orientation–classes on how to live in prison. • The do’s and don’t’s • The rules and policies • The available programs
• An introduction to some staff It’s a time when you have virtually nothing. You are given: • a small black comb • an all-in-one liquid soap/shampoo • a toothbrush • toothpaste that doesn’t work • deodorant that doesn’t work. • three individual portions of Wish laundry detergent • four envelopes • a pad of wide line paper • a pen • an alarm clock and a cup that they let you use until you can order one. This means: • No hair tie • No hair conditioner • No food • No flatware • No bowl • No phone time • No sweatshirt • No Q-tips • No nail clipper • No band aids • No dental floss • No clue. You suspect that you smell. Because you do. Some are full of shame to the point of feeling suicidal before they arrive. Many are angry–angry at the system, at the circumstances that got them into trouble, at the destructive people in their lives,
or at themselves. Mostly at themselves. Most people feel guilty about their children or parents that now struggle because they are locked up, and frustrated that prison has taken away the ability for them to take care of their families. There are regrets of not being able to walk their son to the bus stop on his first day of kindergarten or for not being there for a daughter when she has her first period. They are often overwhelmed by their heroin, meth, opiate, or alcohol addictions, their unfortunate childhoods, or abusive relationships. Many are mourning the losses in their lives– especially if they are experiencing the loss of the custody of their children, or the loss of friends who have recently overdosed. They lack coping mechanisms. There are a few that violate their parole in the winter just to have a roof over their heads and enough to eat. For others, it’s like old home week –they have been back so many times that prison feels comfortable. They know a lot of the prison population from the streets, or from county jail, or from their past sentence(s). Prison gives them a safe refuge from chaos. Prison is their normal. But regardless of experience, prison is framed upon a monotonous schedule, and monotony alters time. Without the rhythms of life–the detangling of outdoor Christmas lights, the toe-tapping in a long grocery line before the Super Bowl, smelling the lilacs in June, attending a nephew’s graduation, walking barefoot on a freshly mowed lawn, burning a brat on a grill, washing a muddyfooted dog, getting a mani-pedi with your best friend, or baking an angel food cake for your sister’s surprise party–without the sensory cadence that occurs outside of prison walls, time melds together. My America feels condensed. Suspended like clear gelatin in a mold. Still. Colorless. Scentless. Not special. Stuck waiting on the buffet line, waiting for the meal to be over.
differences don’t divide us. indifferences do. We’re a nation divided. It’s time to come together. Get the facts, hear the stories that need to be heard and join the discussions that matter.
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