Friday, February 25, 2011

The Uncultured Culture

Last night I had the experience of a lifetime. It seems as if I’d been holding my breathe for 24 years and was finally afforded the opportunity to see The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre up close and personal. My mother had seen them and one of my sisters had seen them (twice) and I’d resorted to immersing myself in the company via DVD and Youtube and if the heavens opened up they may appear on Oprah. However that hadn’t happened in almost six years. I spend about an hour a week looking over the tour schedule and this particular performance lined up with my pockets and I was finally able to go. It was to be held at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
For anyone that doesn’t know who Alvin Ailey was, he was a dancer and choreographer made infamous because of a production he produced entitled Revelations. A series of pieces that connect the struggle of humanity, the weight of living, and it illustrates the ritual of baptism in the African American community. This production opened during the heat of the Civil Rights Movement and the company became famous because it was a completely African American company of skilled modern dancers.
My sister accompanied me to the performance. We arrived a few minutes late (due to an accident) so we, among many other guests, were asked to watch the opening performance on the flat-screen televisions in the foyer. It was still just as moving. I leaned over to her and said, “Even though we have to watch this out here, just to be in the same building with them is such a privilege.” She nodded and kept watching.
I took a gander or two around the vestibule that seemed to be packed with late arrivals. It seemed like an even mix of cultures. More African American and Caucasian than any other culture. However, this was before we entered the theatre.
When the opening performances ended, we were allowed to take our seats. By the time we entered, the house lights were up and the audience was hardly mixed. There were a few of “us” but I was disheartened by the fact that “we” were still the minority at such a performance. I refuse to use the location as an excuse. I seriously could have taken my sisters and my hands and counted the number of African American patrons in the audience. It was bitter-sweet. I relished in the beauty of seeing a predominantly white audience appreciate a man who revolutionized dance during a period where African Americans were considered less than, mistreated, beaten, and excluded. It was amazing to me that his craft had transcended race and obliterated color. So much so that there were two Caucasian dancers in this performance. Remember this used to be a completely African American company.
Even with all of the standing ovations, the encore, and the cheering, I still couldn’t get past the idea that we don’t appreciate our own. I take that back, if the title reads “All the Good Men Are Gone”, “Hips and Lies”, “Mr. Chocolate”, or “Stripper Chronicles” we seem to always be on board. We seem to feed into stereotypes and the parts of us that are beautifully artistic we shy away from. This isn’t restricted to the arts. We had dinner first at a gorgeous Mediterranean restaurant in a very well mixed part of Durham, NC. We were the only people in the restaurant that looked like us. I remember hearing a conversation between Michael Baisden and George Wilborn about a year ago. Michael urged his listeners to stop reading only black authors, seeing only popular black movies. He went so far as to say, “Stop ordering Ranch dressing and chicken when you go out to eat.”
I could go on about this for paragraphs and pages but all I’m trying to say (as Black History Month comes to a close) is that we are such a gifted group people. It goes far beyond rapping and dribbling or hiking a ball. We’ve pioneered medicine, literature, philosophy, and started major universities. Surely we can dig deep enough to support the good in us and not just the stereotypical, token, and EXPECTED parts of ourselves. I’m just sayin’.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Dark and Lovely

Lately, I’m finding myself to be more receptive to the lessons around me. Here’s a tiny one I learned last night.

It’s Tuesday night and I went through the day thinking it would be just another ordinary Tuesday. Seeing as how, Tuesday nights are class nights for me, I spend a good hour and a half with my girls….. dancing.
Because my group of dancers is growing rapidly, we were moved back into our original dance room. A traditional dance room wide (length-wise) with wall-to-wall mirrors. All of these little details will make sense by the end of this post.

I stood facing the mirror, teaching our newest piece. I don’t face them so they don’t get confused and so that they can watch me if they need a quick point of reference. Anyway, one of my silliest and most energetic girls, eight years old, stood next to me. I was teaching a foot sequence that I had a feeling would be tough for them to pick immediately. I read frustration on her face almost instantaneously, so I took her hand and walked her through the steps and before long she picked it up like her older counterparts.

The song being so high and laced with energy, all of my girls were excited and bouncing around and getting really in to the routine but my silly girl was in another place. The mirrors told everything and I knew it wasn’t the choreography. While her teammates danced and giggled and jumped and played whenever we took a break, she sat on the floor with her head in her hands, legs crossed, staring blankly at her reflection.

Even though I was preoccupied teaching some of my younger ones the same sequence I’d just taught her, I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. The hour started to dissolve and I took the opportunity. “Okay ladies, I’m pleased at how hard you all have worked tonight. I’m gonna play the song again and you guys can freestyle for the rest of class.” They jumped at the freedom that I rarely give them but just as suspected my silly girl, sat back on the floor. Head in hands, legs crossed, staring at her reflection.

I called her name. “Come here.” I sat on the floor with my legs crossed and she created a nook under my arm and close to my hip. “What’s the matter? Why are you so frustrated?” I asked her. She rested her head on my bosom and answered honestly (at least from what she’d been inspecting all evening). “Because I’m ugly.”

“Who told you you were ugly?” I asked.

“I told myself!” She fought back tears.

“But why?”

“Because I’m turning nine years old and I am.” It sounded simple but I could tell she was referring to her awkwardness and her bony body.

I gave her a good squeeze. “Are you kidding?” I made her face the mirror again, all the while my other kids were hopped up on Valentine’s candy so much so they didn’t notice our intimate moment. Rather than ask her what she saw, I said. “You must not see what I see. Those big brown eyes and long eyelashes. Look at that dark skin. You’re amazing. You might not think so now but you’re beautiful and I’m gonna tell you every time I see you until you believe it.” I looked at her (in the mirror) and asked, “Who do you see?”

She said her name.

“And what is she?”

“Beautiful!” She answered with a giggle.

Some people that come across this may think to themselves, “What a sad conversation to have with a little girl.”

I look at it differently. I felt privileged as a black woman, who at one point struggled with self-esteem, to be able to instill a sense of value in her. That was breathtaking to me. Value of her skin, her big eyes and long lashes, long gangly legs. Things that she may very well get picked on for now but when she grows into the amazing black woman she’s bound to be, it’s all going to fall into place. This isn’t to say my conversation with her tonight is going to obliterate her struggle with her appearance (she’s so adorable though) but at least it’s a tiny step in the right direction. Maybe this was appropriate for the both of us, it being February and all. I don’t know, I was moved and tickled to death to be able to help her see just a little of who she was and how gorgeous “black” really is.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Tiny Victories

So it’s 4:30 a.m. on Friday, February 11, 2011. Less than 24 hours before my next birthday and Thursday was rough. I spent most of the day in tears. What with being overwhelmed about major life altering decisions I’m having to make in order to make some dreams tangible by the end of this year.
As most of the country is making some of the same adjustments, I’ve been bogged down with the idea of having to downsize tremendously in order to save money, take graduate school exams, fill out applications, get writing samples together, work on my own writing (for major publishing), and looking for a full-time job to finance it all, I couldn’t take it anymore. The school of my choice will be kept on the hush until I’ve been officially accepted but I know I’ll be leaving North Carolina early next year to make a lot of what I just listed happen.
Anyway, I spent most of yesterday sorting through my thoughts, crying, praying, crying, worrying, and thinking some more. Yes, I know. Worry and prayer don’t mix but I’m working on that.
The hours began to lapse and as infomercials began to filter in to some of my favorite networks, I became more and more restless. Wide-awake and sprawled out on the couch watching NUMB3RS (I’m not a fan but it’s the only thing that’s ever on at this hour).
So I’m lying on the couch, thinking aloud about all of things I used to say I would’ve accomplished by this birthday. I began to wallow in self-pity a bit thinking I’d failed myself and kicking myself for having shared so many of my aspirations with so many people. I mean the questions like, “Is that book published yet?” ,“Well, what’s taking so long?”, “I thought you said you wanted to be a professional writer”, kind of get to you after you hear them enough. I felt like I’d lost.
So I lay there. Mumbling to myself and my eyes widened. I remembered one recent goal I’d made for myself almost two months ago that I’d completely forgotten about.
December 25, 2010 my mother gave me a sexy red dress as one of my Christmas gifts. With all of the holiday indulgence, stress, and such, I didn’t want to try it on in front of her. Especially since one of my family members always seems to comment on my weight on Christmas Day every year without fail. I remember after they said what they said to me, I got all of my parcels, loaded them in the car and left my parent’s house in tears. I don’t usually cry this much but the last eighteen months have been a doozey.
When I got home, still in tears, I took the red dress out of its box and yanked it on. The damn thing didn’t zip. Frustrated, I text my sister and told her my dilemma, pleaded with her not to tell my mother because by my birthday I was going to get in it. Up until 4:00 a.m. on February 11, I’d forgotten all about that cute little thing. Fire red, with black rhinestone detailing around the neckline, just above the knee. The perfect dress for flirty fishnets and the perfect peep-toe booties. Lol!!!

So there I lay on the couch, eyes wide, and I jump up and grab the gift box that I’d forgotten about. I never even hung the dress in the closet. I slipped into my cute little red dress and it zipped (with a little room left in the hips).

I’m not sure why I’m sharing this but I think with how heavy (not literally lol!) I’ve felt for the past few days (and months) and the constant thought race in my mind, I forgot how rewarding tiny victories can be. I think even in that moment of standing in front of my bathroom mirror, twirling and dancing with excitement, I reminded myself that I’m capable of doing anything. No nothing is going the way I planned it but in the end with a little stick-to-itiveness and some chutzpah, all of the things I find daunting and overwhelming can be overcome one tiny victory at a time.

I think in essence, I forgot the beauty of testimony. I just wanted one. I want a story to be able to tell. I take that back, I want an amazing story to tell. It momentarily slipped my mind that amazing stories aren’t born out of minimal trial. I’m not saying I won’t cry again, or get frustrated, or maybe even want to give up. What I am saying is, my little red dress gave me some perspective. I asked God where He was today, He let me know around 4:30 this morning.