Tuesday, June 28, 2011

On Being (Good): A Workaholic's Confession

"Am I a child of potion? Am I a child of folklore, or family crisis, some need for gender balancing?...Are my brothers really brothers to me, or am I sister to bay leaf and scorched root of cayenne?"

-Deneese/Denise in A.J. Verdelle's "The Good Negress"

Maybe every black girl is a wish, a lingering morning dream, a quieter need than the masculinist awe of sons. Maybe a daughter is a gendered spell, a tea towards transformation a shapechanging intervention into what a warrior looks like. This week some spell, some secret, some ancestor blessed accident sent A.J. Verdelle's The Good Negress into my life like a need.

Fellow Warrior Healer and Quirky Black Girl Almah mentioned Verdelle's book during an Indigo Days afternoon at the Eno River as her favorite and maybe the best novel she has ever read. And that really means something coming from Almah, self-identified glitter-fairy and Lex-identified scatterseed griot, who has an inspired quotation for every instance of black prismatic life. I knew I had to read Verdelle's book, but I hadn't had a chance to do anything about it when days later, QBG exemplar, black feminist scholar and spiritual leader Akasha Gloria Hull (co-editor of But Some of Us Are Brave and author of many books including Soul Talk-a QBG must-read that focuses on black women's spirituality through indepth years of conversations with Lucille Clifton, Sonia Sanchez, Toni Cade Bambara and Michelle Gibbs) sent two huge boxes filled with books as a donation to the Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind Lending Library and guess what was one of the dozens of books she sent? Yes! The Good Negress. Who can help but live a charmed life when their everyday is filled with black feminist geniuses? That was more than enough. I started reading the novel immediately.

And as I facebooked Almah the other day it seriously put me through some changes. So this blog post should be understood not as a good summary of the book or even a literary analysis of its project (though I may want to do that sometime too), but a reflection on how this book reflected me back to myself in a way that gave me yet another opportunity to do the quirky and abundant lifelong work of becoming more honest and willing to transform.

Or to become a child of potion, a person with the capacity to create a version of personhood. Myself.

"In this way the subject is changed and changed and changed." (from The Good Negress)

Over and over again in these posts I testify to you all about the power of embracing "being" instead of always "doing." I confess to you my own internalized capitalism, how I have been a workaholic, how I have used work to avoid my fears about being present to intimacy, space, time, love, awkwardness, and anything less dependable and familiar in my life than work.

I also now realize that I used work to set me apart from other people in my own evaluation of myself, so I could define myself through the strength of my specific work and not the vulnerabilities I share in common with all other people. This is something that provided me tentative security (note that I am not saying "safety") and plenty of isolation. The solution to any problem is that I should get back to work, not that I should ask for help. This blocks me from fully collaborating with people on actualizing my vision. It also means I don't expect to see my issues reflected in the people around me and certainly not in works of literature, so journeying a piece of the road with the protagonist of The Good Negress, whose workaholism manifests in a life with deeply different details from my own was a surprise and a wake-up slap.

Denise/Deneese is traumatized by the death of her father, abandonment from her mother, separation from her grandmother and by ongoing exploitation and lack of accountability from her family. Verdelle is brilliant as she reveals the traumatic ways these experiences replay in our hearts and reproduce themselves in our lives within the dialogue of the characters and in the structure of the text. We can call it "changing the subject." When anyone, especially Denise/Deneese brings up her pain or her critique of her situation, someone in her family changes the subject. This is especially pronounced in the conversations between Deneese/Denise and her mother, they change the subject from loss, abandonment and their clumsy attempt to rename each other across trauma and resentment into something they CAN talk about...clothing, chores, the mundane and repetitive. At the same time Verdelle structures the narrative about Deneese/Denise's life in a circular way, as if it was told by someone who keeps leaving out something important and therefore has to go back and get it. We get the aftermath of Deneese's mother leaving her with her grandmother before the actual scene, before the death of Denise's father that makes that choice necessary. Verdelle structures the storytelling like the infinite sideways eight trajectory of someone cleaning the same counter again and again and again, which is not a mere coincidence because Denise/Deneese turns to compulsive housework and then later schoolwork as a way to keep her body and mind occupied, to create distance between herself and the story she needs to tell.

I do the same thing. Workaholism, the fact that there is always something urgent to be done, especially in the midst of a crisis or confrontation, has been my method of internally changing the subject, a switch that I can flick in order to not be present to my own situation or to the people in my life. The way Verdelle illuminates the consequences of "changing the subject" cumulatively over time allows me to transform my subjectivity by asking myself whether the infinite tasks that so urgently need to be done are more important than the collective story of my life in the context of my loved ones and my community. Am I willing to miss out on my own life and yours in service to an addiction to work? And work for what?

"I thought it was school that had made me but it wasn't."

Well. Imagine me, your sister-comrade, at the end of her very first year of life out of school since 1984 when she was 2-years old, encountering a phrase like this. "I thought it was school that had made me, but it wasn't." Although the economy of Denise/Deneese's life as a child of southern migrants growing up in Detroit in the 1960's as a young woman expected to play the role of a domestic servant within her family and the economy of my life as an affirmative action baby/scholarship kid encouraged to participate in enriching educational experiences at all times are profoundly different, Deneese/Denise also meets a teacher who project her DuBoisian beliefs onto the young woman and encourages her to immerse herself in schoolwork in order to "rise above her station." Denise (this is the spelling of her name that the teacher prefers) easily turns to her studies has another form of work that she can use to escape the contradictions and confrontations of her life. She also uses her education to build a sense of self that can counter the disempowered definition of her own worth that she feels like her subservient role in her family has enforced. But in a moment of clarity she realizes that neither institution, not the school and not her family are ultimately accountable to her as a person. She is still meant to be used, as a symbol as a worker low on the totem pole, as a means to an end that she did not design.

And so imagine me. 29 years old and finally out of school, with a deep internalized capitalism and addiction to intellectual task-making and with no possible higher degree to blame it on! Imagine the author of a zillion scholarship applications faced with the task of reclaiming her own worth outside of the context of the markers that educational institutions value. Imagine someone faced with possibility of a new meaning of life, with the predicament of freedom and self-determination. Am I a child of potion? Maybe you see yourself. Imagine that we are here, responsible for our own magic and accountable first to each other (also known as ourselves), the other person we can feel ourselves becoming, the irresistible possibilities of our own transformation that we try to resist anyway by being too busy to live as the much needed magical spell the universe already knows us to be.

Like the category of "the good negress," the obedient daughter, the star pupil, the always there for everyone else friend, the top notch token, the non-stop activist, the spokesperson for whatever, the famished poster-child...none of these caricatures of ourselves are healthy places to live. I have valued being "good," worthy, valuable in internalized capitalist terms over the miraculous experience of this amazing lifetime that I get to live in the presence of such as YOU!

So I'm over it. And I'm telling you so you can call me out, bring me back, remember me as more than who I let myself be. And I see you too.

With love for the bad indulgent transformative out-of-gendered-character negress-ness in all of us.

And thanks Almah, Akasha and A.J.!!!!

Love always,

P.S. Instead of cultivating and validating hard-working escapism in my life, I am now a born-again evangelist of PRESENCE! See details below for the Juneteenth Freedom Academy for Educators this August which focuses on rituals that bring us back to presence!!

Announcing Juneteenth Freedom Academy Summer Institute for Educators: August 8-12 in Durham, NC

Juneteenth Freedom Academy Summer Intensive for Educators:

Rituals for Transformative Presence

August 8-12, 2011

Durham, NC

because you were that genius kid in the back of the room looking out the window. because you were that young Malcolm X that the teacher wasn’t ready for. because you were that Charlotte Hawkins Brown making your own school in yards and parlors. because you have always known that where ever you are learning is possible. because you don’t remember much of 10th grade biology except that the teacher seemed to really listen to really make it accessible even when you didn’t care. because there was something that happened in the classroom that made you want to come back and fix it, come back and honor it, come back and create a classroom of your own. because you are here for the kids, not for the standards and obviously not for the money. because you remember every day that people’s movement in the US and in the world have been led by students. because you know that the place where nerds meet gang members is the place where the Black Panther Party was born, and that meeting could be reconvened in any classroom any day now. because it’s still about that moment when you learn something new and the students realize that they are teachers already, and leaders and a force in the universe that cannot be stopped.

Because your presence is a catalyst, because your students are a prophecy. Because June Jordan said it best… “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

The Premise:

Every social justice artist and genius and their brilliant mama is publishing a curriculum, hoping to reach the students you work with, without ever seeing their faces. And sometimes the content is brilliant. But most educational institutions, including public schools, after school programs, independent schools, community colleges and four-year colleges and graduate programs already have their own mandatory or chosen content. So…

This course acknowledges what has the most influence on students while they are in the classroom, the people who are there, the educators and each other and the energy we are all empowered to bring into the space.

This course offers:

*Silence (templates for self-generated, updateable affirmations and reminders designed to get you ready to be powerfully present and spiritually grounded before you enter the classroom)

*Sound (ways to fine tune and amplify your level of listening and responding to/being present for your particular students)

*Space (a process for designing guidelines and rituals that allow students to be present to EACH OTHER and the wisdom that surrounds them)

*Support (co-mentoring relationships and networking with other transformative teachers)

The Paradigm:

Juneteenth Freedom Academy is created in honor of the black feminist educator, poet, parent and political activist June Jordan. We invoke her work as part of our task in continuing to spread the scattered message that slavery is over, in particular to those systems that continue to sell life and kill dreams. We believe that teaching in oppressed communities with accountability to oppressed people can be a subversive act that is ultimately accountable to freedom, not the reproduction of conformity as usual across generations. June Jordan taught in public libraries and schools, in independent underfunded Saturday supplemental programs, in state university classrooms, at Yale, in prisons, in community centers, in children’s books, in lectures and in living rooms. The Juneteenth Freedom Academy for Educators draws on Alexis’s privileged access to June Jordan’s archival materials to use her syllabi, unpublished essays, course readers and student publications as resources for freedom in our lifetimes.

My brilliant and beloved co-conspirator and teaching partner Gardy Perard speaks with the clarity and precision of a mathematician. He says that the primary question for educators is how to bring freedom, possibility, power and connection into every teaching context. Together with Nia Wilson, Nikki Brown, Heather Lee and Zachari Curtis as co-facilitators of the Choosing Sides Program, a SpiritHouse program based in an alternative school in Durham serving students who were long-term suspended or expelled from Durham Public Schools, often for activities related to their involvement in street organizations, we created a student centered atmosphere of transformation and learning based on our internalized memory that the place where academics meet criminalized street organizers is a place of unstoppable power, is the generative collaboration that made the Black Panther one of the fiercest, most effective and most revolutionary organizations we know about.

Our accountability to the particularity and genius of the students that we worked with over the years pushed us to create practices to honor the truth that transformative education is not about transforming students. It is about being present for their inherent brilliance and assisting them in transforming their and our relationships to oppressive institutions. This is sacred work. Because most of our teaching takes place in places impacted by oppressive systems, and because we and any student we might encounter are impacted by oppressive institutions the work of creating liberatory space takes rituals and practices before, during and after the classroom encounter that generate the transformative energy of staying present to each other’s brilliance no matter what.

Supportive Course Components:

*weeklong summer institute in Durham, NC to work with templates, practices and to engage readings from June Jordan, the Black Panther Party, and Alexis Pauline Gumbs! (August 15-19)

*full color PDF workbook with posters, pocket reminders and accessories

*first month back interactive and motivating conference calls (August 25-September 25)

*video seminar to share with colleages

*quarterly optional online-enabled participant hosted gatherings

*the presence podcast and reminder PSA’s from Alexis

Sign Up:

1. email brokenbeautifulpress@gmail.com BY JULY 20th with your intention to participate and responses to these 3 questions

a. what is the community of students you are accountable to/working with

b. what do you hope to gain from this course

c. what is every possible way to contact you :)

d. how you will support the course

2. Support the course!!!

Support the Course!!!

Your presence is priceless. No one will be turned away from the course for financial reasons. HOWEVER support for the course is crucial. Here are suggested ways to support your participation and to keep transformative autonomous spaces like this thriving:

*Please ask your school, organization, institution, employer, community to support your participation in this priceless experience. The institutional sponsor rate is sliding scale $200-500 depending on your assessment of what your institution can afford.

*Another option is to support the course individually in relatively affordable installments. Become a sustainer of the Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind at a level you feel comfortable with:

*Mobilize your community! Take the opportunity to share the awesome thing you are doing with your mentors, friends, loved ones and allies and allow them to donate in your name. Send them this button and remind them to put your name in “notes” so that I can tell you to thank them!

*And offer a trade! Want to bring other resources to the event? (Food, materials, healing practices, resources I haven’t imagined?) Make a proposal.

See you there!!!!!


Alexis Pauline Gumbs

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