Seeing in the Being

Esse Quam Videri, or, “To be, rather than to seem” is the state motto of North Carolina. In light of the simulacrum-saturated world in which we live, the expression carries considerable weight. From real blue grass to real barbecue, the difference between being and seeming is a contentious topic, especially among white people,[1] and has been for a long time.

What meaning do these words take on in their designated southern context? In North Carolina specifically? What follows are some definitions and reflections on their meanings.

“to be”

1

a :  to equal in meaning :  have the same connotation as :  symbolize

b :  to have identity with

c :  to constitute the same class as

d :  to have a specified qualification or characterization

e :  to belong to the class of—used regularly in senses 1a through 1b as the copula of simple predication

2

a :  to have an objective existence :  have reality or actuality :  live

b :  to have, maintain, or occupy a place, situation, or position

c :  to remain unmolested, undisturbed, or uninterrupted —used only in infinitive form

d :  to take place :  occur

e :  to come or go[2]

…Rather than…

“to seem”

1

:  to appear to the observation or understanding

2

:  to give the impression of being[3]

To Be 1:

To Symbolize

To Have Identity With

To Constitute the Same Class As

To Have Specified Qualification

To Belong

North Carolina got its motto pretty late in the state game; the other thirteen original colonies had had theirs for some time when the “Old North State” finally decided to go for it. In 1893, a jurist in North Carolina named Walter Clark drafted a bill that advocated for the state motto.[4] Senator Jacob Battle took the bill to the senate and it was passed immediately. Clark had fought in the Civil War as a Confederate soldier at the age of 15. In 1885, he was appointed judge of the superior court of North Carolina and in 1889 won the election to join the Supreme Court of North Carolina.[5] During his tenure, he bestowed North Carolina with its catchy and timely motto.

Clark’s ascendency to the Supreme Court and the motto deliberations coincided with the emergence of the “New South.” This “New South” embodied the industrial metropolis and mechanical production as a new way of promoting and doing business. The concept rapidly gained popularity amongst the southern white elite who, after Reconstruction, made harnessing black labor to work long hours at minimal pay in coal mining, agriculture and manufacturing industries their top priority. The process of building labor-ready populations relied on strict reinforcement of race as a principle way to organize society. Three years after North Carolina ponied up to having a state-motto, Plessy v. Ferguson, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court Case decision that made segregation based on race enforceable by law, passed. “One drop” rules had been in place in North Carolina since the early 1700s, but in the 1890s, court cases began popping up about whether or not a lay person was capable of being able to determine someone’s race.[6] In other words, court cases began deciding who could serve as an expert on race. In North Carolina, that was pretty much all the white people. These court cases were accompanied by myriad racist paraphernalia and media campaigns designed to inculcate the definitions of racial categories and strengthen white supremacy across the South.

The business of being catered to certain ends. The idea of seeming or passing as something you are not “really” would throw it all off.[7]

To Be: 2

To Have Objective Existence

Live

To Occupy a Place

To Remain Undisturbed

To Take Place

To Come or Go

 In the early 1990s, North Carolina and South Carolina realized that they didn’t know where one began and the other ended.[8] This conundrum had occurred before. In 1815, state officials encountered the same problem so the Carolinas got down to business; they surveyed the land, and marked up some trees to proclaim their truthful state lines. These purported trees are, regrettably, long gone. South Carolina and North Carolina have always had beef with one another, so this border issue is a real concern. Sorority girls have carried on bitter debates about who claim the real “Carolina Girl” title for generations, for example. The lines are still being worked out in both cases; within the last few years, some families have found out that they actually live in the other state which meant different school districts, taxes, and they’re probably still recovering from their former state pride complex. Gas stations were especially pissed; those that normally garnered the most customers due to the lower gas taxes (probably South Carolina at any given point, let’s be honest), suddenly got the short end of the stick with their competitors. So far, “South of the Border,” a strange, Mexican-themed amusement park founded in 1949 to extend alcoholic service to dry counties in North Carolina, still appears to be straddling both South and North Carolina. Thank god.

sob-header

Other concerns about the NC state border: the OBX! (That’s short for the North Carolina Outer Banks, a chain of islands filled with wild horses and Ohioans, for those of you who don’t know.) Over the past few decades, the Outer Banks of North Carolina have been steadily disappearing. Some frame this as a “sands of time” issue. You know, the tide rises and falls, and so do the shores of the Outer Banks. Places like the Audubon Society, the Nature Conservancy, the UNC Coastal Studies Institute disagree. According to them, the overwhelming development on the islands in concert with global warming means that things on the coast are changing pretty fast. Ironically, this is causing even developers to “freak.”[9]

To Seem 1&2:

To Appear to the Observation or Understanding

To Give the Impression of Being

 Last summer, a friend who had also lived in North Carolina and I, started making the drive down from Rhode Island to NC. We were reminiscing the entire way. Ugh, the tomatoes! The peaches for christsakes! We were so psyched about having some Cheerwine that we picked some up for a swig in Pennsylvania instead of waiting until we actually arrived in the state proper. Heading toward Greensboro, we took Route 29 through the Shenandoah Valley with soft rolling green mountains framing our drive the whole way. For most of its way winding through Virginia, Route 29 is called the Seminole Trail. It is unclear why it has that name as the Seminole tribe did not have a presence in Virginia. In other portions of Route 29, it is called the Lee Highway after Robert E. Lee, the General-In-Chief of the Confederate Army just before the end of the Civil War. That area of Virginia is divine. Crossing into North Carolina, however, evokes a completely different feeling. The rolling hills peter out a little as you get closer to the state line. The greenness takes less a wide shape stretched out across landscapes and more a curly, intimate one as the trees hug the sides of the road more closely.

When we crossed the state line, we yelled a triumphant yell, and pulled over at the good old North Carolina rest stop to just feel the air and smell the NC smell….and pee. I had just cut off all of my hair, a good choice before you journey down South in late July, and it felt awesome. As if on cue when I emerged from the car, a little boy in a little country accent near me shouted in surprise, “Momma, it ain’t a man, it’s a wuman!” She looked at me, eyebrows furrowed, cheeks sucked in, like she was puzzling something else over. I waved.

Copula/Rather Than

“To be” is often used as a copula in simple predication. The definition of a copula is to link or to connect one thing to another. In other words, it links a name to a category like, “Sarah is a woman.”

Seeming seems a lot more fluid. It implies someone can appear to fit into a variety of different categories without being any given one of them.

To be rather than to seem

“Rather” highlights the favoring in this pairing and also posits that a choice exists between them. One can chose to be or one can chose to seem. Seeming is to associate with impostures. Being, however, is brave, honest, and patriotic.

We’ll never know what Clark had in mind when he rushed the bill that would become our motto to Battle in 1893.  What message did he hope the inscription would carry over time?  Would he be glad that the pressure to be rather than to seem, to be a category, rather than to seem like one, continues to bear relevance?  In this respect, it seems that North Carolina, late to coin its motto, was ahead of its time.

 


 

[1] A poignant example

[2] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/be

[3] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/seem

[4] http://www.northcarolinahistory.org/encyclopedia/402/entry/

[5] http://search.credoreference.com.revproxy.brown.edu/content/entry/columency/clark_walter/0

[6] https://pantherfile.uwm.edu/margo/public/FedlStatisticalSystem/1290008.pdf

[7] I am referring to racial passing, though gender passing was pretty darn unpopular then too…

[8] http://www.npr.org/2014/08/26/343484222/how-a-colonial-era-error-put-the-carolinas-at-odds

[9] http://www.audubon.org/magazine/march-april-2015/slip-sliding-away

Body/s in Question – first edition

Some places are born into us
When we come into the world
They have already shaped us
Laid foundations in our DNA

This map has always been there

Other places make their way onto us
We may choose these places
But we can’t choose how they stain us
Imprinting themselves
Sinking through our skin
Drop by drop
So that the music.
The accent
The food
Becomes a part of us

Permanently inked and carved
Becoming a part of the cells that make the cells

So even as we replace ourselves, shedding layers of old for new skin
These places remain

These maps float down
To meet the cartography of our DNA
To dance and chuckle together
To map out the particular world

That only we know


Body/s in Question is a multi-pronged research and performance project that charts chart the fault lines of race and identity that live in the multiracial body in the Caribbean and the U.S.A.

Cuba (rough cut)

I’ve gone south/(re)turning/stretching borders /with my/hips//in–rhythm

As I write, I’m driving through the countryside of Cuba, passing  fields of caña and palm trees and shaded mountains with coffee, through what were some of the first plantations in this “New” World that already very much existed before the ships arrived, but is also made new each day.

This is a return. Una vuelta.

I am halfway through my time here. I spent the first week on a program organized with PlazaCuba immersed in popular and folkloric dance traditions with some of the leading companies in Havana, including Ban Rarrá and Raizes Profundas. I am thankful that my experience in Cuba began with and through the body. In the turning and listening and following of salsa, rumba, and son. In the rhythms of the Orishas and the diversity and connection of traditions created in through the exchanges between Yoruba, Congo, Dahomey, Voudou as African, Spanish and later Haitians and Jamaicans found there way in this world of islands.

I am now beginning the second part of my journey, heading to Esmeralda, Camaguey, the town where my grandfather was born, as I explore migration and multiracial identity in  the America’s via my family’s story in Jamaica, Cuba and the USA. I am carrying questions and wishes from the generations that came from this land but have never seen it and from my grandfather who left at 14 and carried Cuba in his heart, giving it to his children and grandchildren through his stories. 

I continue to follow and weave the strings of ancestry, migration, racial identity and cultural heritage that have guided me thus far. I continue to dance because I have to. I continue to be caught by the arms of the universe in the form of friends who guide my next step.

I am halfway through my trip and my head, heart, body and soul are full. I have no complete thoughts or thorough reflections so for now I offer some rough cuts from my time thus far.

Besos y abrazos

-Alison





















The South is in the Cake and it is Inside Me

“Excuse me,” I stopped the waitress just as she turned to put our order in, “do you know what makes it ‘Old Fashioned’?”

~The “Old Fashioned” Coconut Cake~

“I don’t actually. I’ll go ask.” I, trying to temper the typical wave of disdain that washes over me when I spot ‘old’ or ‘old fashioned’ next to menu items, was sitting in a gourmet pastry shop with my friend and her boyfriend whom I had just met. The pastry shop, on Federal Hill in Providence, was the same one in which I met the first long-term boyfriend I’d had since high school. Being my first return since our break up, I was already jittery due to the number of awkward interactions with his former coworkers I would inevitably have. The cake bit fueled my agitation.

The waitress returned with our pastries and I, squirmy and expectant, sat with my eye-brows lifted and chin up with a half-smile ready for her answer. “So, it turns out it just means it’s from the South. I don’t know why we even have it. I mean, no one from the South lives here.” My friend, aware of my slight neurosis on the subject, pointed at me and smiled. I found the word Yankee, one I thought I’d won the battle over, floating up from the ghostly crypts of my mind. Though it was sort of a double-offense (the attempt to take the South out of a cake and the South out of me,) I was embarrassed by my knee-jerk defense and turned to the possibility of sugar-rush for consolation.

________________________________

You see, the coconut cake is a southern classic. When I say that, I don’t mean “By the way, southerners make that kind of cake and you should know that.” As they put it in the New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, “To many southerners, the thought of favorite cakes brings to mind certain occasions. Weddings, holidays, “dinner on the grounds” church picnics, and funerals. Memories of fellowship hall tables laden with traditional southern sweets such as pineapple upside-down cake, Lane cake, coconut cake, and red velvet cake not only conjure tastes but also stories of the ladies who bake them.” The coconut cake is an icon of the South both because of the memories it conjures for southerners and because of the southern memory embedded in its layers.

I could go into all of the ingredients and their legacies here. Sugarcane and sugar plantations, the flour trade in the Gulf, and the Mexican origins of vanilla certainly set the stage for a discussion of coconut cake’s global roots. Since the primary descriptor of this cake is the coconut, however, I’ll give a little background there. The conditions that came together to make the Southern Coconut Cake possible are not listed exhaustively above.

1840s: the demand for cheap soap ingredients spawned the development of coconut plantations, built and run off of slave labor, in tropical regions around the world, especially in the Caribbean.

1500s: Portuguese trading conquests spurred an uptick in the appearance of the coconut in European written records, but accounts of Europeans enjoying coconut “milk”* date back to the 1200s.

A long time ago: It is speculated that coconuts’ first use was for clean drinking water in tropical and coastal areas. It is also speculated that coconuts evolved on the coastal regions of Gondawanaland.

1880s: Dried coconut was first manufactured in the 1880s, right around the time southern bakers* began dressing up otherwise boring cakes with coconut shavings.

1840s-1880s: Evidently, trading the fruits of enslaved labor between the Caribbean and the U.S. South was so efficient that coconuts could be available for sale in a port city like Charleston within four days of harvest in the Caribbean.*

________________________________

Like I said, a southern classic. So, why don’t they just say that on the menu? Is it a fear of losing credit over their baked goods? A tactic to avoid questions? A way to impart an exotic hint while not spoiling the surprise? Does “Old Fashioned” just sound better? Does it roll off the tongue better?

________________________________

Recently, while in the Rhode Island Historical Society archives, I decided to do a little genealogical digging on a rumor I’d heard about being related to the Lizzie Borden, the famous (infamous?) axe-murderer from Fall River, Massachusetts. (My southern relatives would have been proud; they LOVE searching for new genealogical material.) It seems we’re pretty distant cousins which is both a drag and somewhat reassuring (for my parents at least.) Our common relative, it turns out, is a guy named Richard Borden who actually came over from England to Plymouth, Rhode Island in 1638 as one of the first British colonizers of what would become the United States. He was a member of the Friends Society and served as general treasurer and commissioner of the Plymouth Colony.  In 1661, he bought sixty acres near “Newtokonkonut Hill”* (now spelled Neutaconkanut,) which is about a half mile from where I live currently and provides an excellent view of the port city of Providence’s skyline. A few years later, he “purchased” land in New Jersey from “certain Indians.” In Borden’s willed goods, there is a record for an enslaved black man and woman valued at £50 and three enslaved black children valued at £25. They are listed among an inventory of his animals.

Richard Borden

________________________________

I turned my attention toward the cake, Neutaconkanut Hill somewhere in the background. The icing was bright white and glittered with fine coconut shavings. The cake itself was soft-yellow and, from sight alone, seemed to own the word moist like no other cake could. Dense, but not too dense. Form and flavor in seamless union. It was absolutely perfect; the raspberry sauce design of a flower on the plate was overkill. Sinking my fork into it felt pornographic even before I put the cake in my mouth. I’ll stop there.

________________________________

*Its “milk” is actually called coconut water.

*“Southern women,” with a flavor of southern white belle, usually get the credit here, but I am choosing “baker” to return to who actually baked the cake.

*Emancipation occurred in different places the Caribbean (in some places due in large part to slave uprisings and resistance) in the early to mid 1800s.  Here, I am thinking about how the trade itself was established based on enslaved labor.

*“Coconut” and the last three syllables of “Newtokonkonut” just felt worth mentioning.

For more on coconut cakes outside of the South, the Southern Foodways Alliance has an incredible piece on Edna Stuart, her restaurant (http://www.southernfoodways.org/interview/ednas-restaurant/) and the coconut cakes she makes (https://www.southernfoodways.org/going-nuts-for-coconut-layer-cake/).

It’s in the Porridge

“Then we would cook cornmeal porridge,
Of which I’ll share with you…”
-“No Woman No Cry” – Bob Marley


“Porridge is such a subjective thing.”

Subjective, certainly. This article, in “The Salt,” NPR’s Foodways blog suggests porridge is a traditional Scottish food eaten during cold winters. Multiple truths exist. For me, porridge is Jamaican breakfast. It has cousins as Brazilian São João street food (mingu,curau, canjica, and mungunzá) and Haitian late night snack (laboyi). I’m sure it is connected to Akamu, Ogi and Pap in Nigeria. It is grits in North Carolina. Perhaps it is polenta.

It has many names.

It is eaten in the constant year round heat that radiates from the equator.

But I don’t see these words in this article. So I will write them.

We must make the colonies visible.

Those far away islands that are at the heart of the identity, economy, and politics of those metropolitan British isles. Those places that seem to be easily ignored when talking about the roots of British and Scottishness. When talking about “changing the course of history.” When writing about how we came to be.

This article reminds me  that I have a lot to learn about my history, personal and collective. About my ancestors before they came to Jamaica, Cuba and the United States, by will and by force. About Jamaican colonial and plantation society. About my African ancestry. About my Scottish and British ancestry. About Vikings. About the knots, contradictions and tensions that are my family tree. How love and violence, evil and good, power and oppression, wealth-building and poverty-making bumped up against each other to make us.

There is so much I do not know.

Porridge is tied up in slavery, growth, expansion, and capitalism. The British Isles and the Caribbean Sea are intimately related, in economy, identity, and genetics. For those on and descended from the Jamaican side of the relationship, it is impossible to make invisible the Scottish-ness, the Britishness, the Irish-ness of what we are. It’s in the skin, the food, the talk, the names. Sometimes, we choose to celebrate it. To simplify it. We do not have the choice of forgetting.  We also don’t always have the choice of knowing.

When I think about Porridge I think about my Grandma, daughter of Lena Hall, from whom I get my middle name. I know that surnames in my Jamaican family – Hall, Robertson – have Scottish origins. I do not know how we got them, except for in vague terms that describe the violent and coercive ways that power, race, and gender collided in the colonies. I do not know the names that we lost, that we had before we were forced onto boats and crossed oceans.

I ask about my name. I learn that Hall is a name with origins to lands that border England and Scotland, and prior to that Norman Vikings. I ponder connections between my mother and my father’s family. My father’s family – Kibbe –  is also potentially descended from Vikings that landed in England.

It’s in the porridge. It’s hot, and mushy, and mixed up.

Porridge references the class and identity divides amongst those in in both the metropolitan isles and the colonial islands. The type, consistency, and level of sweetness is code for wealth, status, prosperity and struggle – past and present.

I learn about identity constructed in contrast. About blurred lines of slave, free, white, black, ownership and immigration.

I ask about whiteness in Jamaica. I learn about the trade of Irish people as slaves.

I learn that a large number of Scotsmen (literally, male bodied people) voluntarily went to Jamaica, many as a way to increase their lot in life, and via their lives in the colony shed their marginal “Scottish” identity, replacing it with the more powerful “British”. By going “away” and into the contact zone of the colony plantations they built wealth and a new identity. Once color was constructed as the ultimate differential, these ancestors national difference from the British became relatively less important compared to my ancestors who were forcibly brought to the Caribbean island from Africa. Scotsmen were then able to re-enter metropolitan society as “British.”

I learn about spiritual forces that support us. About Brigid, the triple deity of fire, poetry, and inspiration. About Yemanja, the goddess of and mother of the ocean. About the meaning of corn, celebration of harvest, and how to celebrate and honor the earth.

I learn I have a lot more to learn. I learn to have more questions.


Porridge


Porridge is sweet and creamy
So sweet and hot
It fills me up
I am overheating from the inside out
So hot
It is too much

 

I can’t finish it Grandma
I’m full

 

Porridge is cornmeal, water, milk, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla.
Porridge is oats, water, milk, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla.
Porridge is green bananas, water, milk, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla.
Porridge is wheatena, water, milk, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla.
Porridge is cream of wheat, water, milk, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla.
Porridge is green plantain, water, milk, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla.
Porridge is hominy, water, milk, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla.
Porridge is peanuts, water, milk, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla.

Each ingredients holds so much
Tells stories of trade of people, spices, sugar, rum
Lives and labor stolen, resources pillaged, people pushed to periphery
To create a metro center

Cream of wheat needs to have lumps
The strawberry jam was never in a spiral in my bowl, like in the commercial
My mother was not entertaining that kind of whimsy on weekday mornings

 

How do you eat porridge in the Caribbean?
It is so hot!
I’m overheating from the inside out

 

Sprinkle sugar on top
Stir in milk to cool it down
then
butter
It forms a glossy film on top.
I don’t stir it in
I like how it forms lakes and rivers

 

I can’t finish it,
Grandma
I just can’t

It is the only thing I can’t finish
I am a dumpling child
Round and soft
I love food
I even love porridge
But a whole bowl!?
I can’t take it all in

It’s too much

It contains the story of sugar
Of cheap grains to feed forced laborers
Of food stretched too far

Eat the outside edges first
It cools faster on the edges
You won’t get burned that way


The richness of my porridge – the fresh milk, the butter – is a privilege
My grandma cannot comprehend my inability to finish
Like she cannot understand my identity crisis and anxiety about my light-white skin and how I fit into the world I live in
The Triangle,
of North Carolina,
circa 2003

It is a privilege

“Eat your porridge”
“Enjoy your lightness”
“You are who you are,
why ask questions?”

The sugar is not a privilege
Quick calories
Paid for in blood and burns and bodies
Eat eat
Quick energy
Eat eat
Diabetes
Eat eat
To spend/to invest in expansion
Of capitalist economies
Built on colonial foreign lands and metropolitan factories
Small islands fueling those slightly larger ones across the Atlantic

I do have questions about my ancestors
About their names.
Who came from Africa? From where?
Who came from Scotland? Why?
How did we get our names?
What names did we lose?

Porridge is creole
Is transplant/immigrant/planter/owner/enslaved
porridge is that-thing-we-do-now-that-we-don’t-remember-when-we-didn’t-do-so-perhaps-we’ve-done-it-forever
porridge is pap
is sweetness is the face of bitter

Porridge is grandma visiting
I find her in the kitchen
Stirring a hot pot
for me
my cousins
my sister
my brother

– – –

Ways with Food is a place to stir up, marinate and serve up our questions, reflections  and stories about food.

2015 New Years Resolution: Be Myself at 5

Happy New Year!

This post came out of me a bit unexpectedly. It is an invitation.  I offer it to you to hold myself accountable to our vision of Broadly Speaking as space for authentic story telling, which requires that I regularly make myself vulnerable. And I offer it so that maybe you will also offer your story. Let’s show-and-tell a bit.

First a question,

How is person you want to be the child you have already been?

Like many, during the holiday season and New Year I reflect and look forward. My birthday is at the end of December, so around this time I have a very strong sense of the completion of a cycle and the beginning of the next one.

I have a number of rituals and methods to guide this season of reflecting and visioning. They happen in varied and haphazard ways, and sometimes include:

  • Naming my year – A few years ago my friends and I started naming our years, choosing themes we want to embody and live out over specific resolutions. We gather in person or virtually to share and help each other name our years.
  • Reading my horoscope. Multiple times. From multiple different sites. (Chani Nicholas is my favorite!)
  • Sometimes a beautiful friend holds space for a ceremony of release and embrace. (Thanks Laurel!)
  • Journaling and putting my visions into writing, naming what I want to see manifested.
  • Making a wish and blowing out my birthday candles

Ultimately, through all of these practices, I ask myself the question, “Who do I want to be?” I think about the ways I am being that person and the ways I want to get closer to it.

Usually, the focus is on being more than what I am – braver, bolder, more creative, more compassionate, etc.

This year, I unintentionally added a new element to my New Year ritual. While I was home in North Carolina I decided it was time to really deal with the massive amount of papers and stuff I have collected over my 25 years. I carry my family’s hoarding gene, so I have a hard time getting rid of things. And then suddenly I’ll decide I want to purge EVERYTHING in a fit of anxiety about my future life trapped beneath piles of papers and clothing that I don’t like/doesn’t fit but that might come back in style/has a lot of sentimental value/reminds me of that one time we were all together in that place/etc….

A mixture of that panic and a desire to dig into my personal archive propelled me to get organized. I let go of unnecessary papers and notes and carefully filed and organized the ones I want to keep. This meant I got to spend a good amount of time reviewing reports, notes, school projects, etc. from kindergarten through college and the present.

I want to offer this practice of digging into our childhood archive during times of visioning and intention setting because I found it incredibly helpful.

These days, I spend a lot of time thinking about where I come from (as this blog is evidence), and often I think of the forces that shape and make me as being external factors that such as my ancestors, my home town, my culture, my family. I also spend a good deal of timing thinking about who and how I want to be in the world. This can also manifest in a sense of what-I-am-not-yet.

During the past few years I have begun to think about “asset mapping” in relation to personal development and awareness. The term is a principle of community development and organizing. It means that all work in a community begins by naming and celebrating the resources – historical, spiritual, social, people, natural, economic, etc – that a community already has. I think it’s important, especially for those of us invested in community work, to remember to apply this tool in our personal lives.

My autobiographical archive dive helped me realize that the person I want to be in 2015, is really the person I was at 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 ….. (also probably 1, 2, and 3 but I honestly don’t remember her so I can’t say I know her – a concept I am very interesting in exploring more in another post…)

Around 13 was when things got a bit sticky. I started hearing a voice inside my head that told me I wasn’t good enough. And I listened to it.

Before that, I was AWESOME!

I created and made. In my end of year report, my 3rd grade teacher wrote, “Alison has amassed a substantial body of written work, one characterized by imagination and flights of fancy, but also a firm grasp on reality.” I want to hang out with that author! (And find that “body of work”….. do we think I could use it now as part of my artistic portfolio?)

I danced on the regular. I disappeared into the woods.  I listened because I knew I had so much to learn. I trusted what I knew “for sure.”I didn’t hide from pain or hurt. I felt a LOT. Feelings were serious business. I understood their power and the need to *pause* and feel them fully. .

This year, I want to continue to remember that part of where I come from is the previous versions of myself who still live in me. Now, at 25, there are extra layers of baggage and blockage as well as wisdom, lessons and maturity gained. I don’t want to “revert” back nor offer an uncritical romanticization of my personal or our collective past (unfortunately, the South offers many examples of the dangers of doing that).

Part of collective and personal healing means acknowledging our demons and difficult histories. The past is not all butterflies, fairy homes, and sweet tea.  But I also want to critique the idea of progress as always being forward motion and improvement always coming from the outside.

Simply, I want to remember that being my best me does always not require striving to be someone new. A big part of it means giving the child who I have already been the chance to come into the present with me. The child who’s waiting to come out and play.

As a practice of inviting this child into today, I will be a bit more like the younger Alison who would proudly say,

Here is a poem I wrote and I want to share it with you. And I would love if you shared with me. How could you as a child be a part of your life today?

5 and three quarters

I can do anything

I am a poet, a dancer, an author
I start writing novels
I create everyday
I write without fear
(or cares about spelling)

Moss is fascinating
Creeks are worlds to explore

I listen to folktales
I know they are important

I live in possibility
In power
In the constant unfolding of the world
And me unfolding and stretching with it

I say “Yes!” more than “No.”
I live in questions
I love the search for answers

I revel in attention from others – in conversation and performance
I feel it is deserved, because I am in fact, the most interesting thing I have ever encountered
I give my attention to ants and dogs and horses – real and imaginary

I put my foot down when I want to
And ask to be carried when I need to

I read and read and read and read
I get lost in books
I have no to do list
I read and read and read and read. And I love it. And I am praised for it.
I do it more

I sing.
In the shower, alone, with others
I imitate songs I know.
I make up my own
I sing even when it might bother others

I know I am good

Sometimes, I want to be a boy, and that is ok
I wear no shirts and have my hair cut short
The hairdresser sometimes buzzes the hair on my neck, the finishing touch to my bowl cut, and I feel so cool
Others confuse me for a boy
Some people are worried
I am not

I run and sweat and get dirty

I start to realize pain happens and I want to hold it for everyone
And I want someone to hold mine
I cry when I am sad
I cuddle with my parents
I trust they will protect me

They talk to me like I have something important to say

I imagine.


* Giving credit where credit is due, I want to shine some light on an awesome woman who helped me through this process.  Through my work with Elizabeth Traina as a coach and at meditation I was able to access and process this inner child experience. Check her out!
Elizabeth Traina is a working artist, award winning muralist, life-coach and energy healer. She has lived and contributed to programs in the San Francisco Bay Area, New Orleans and Brooklyn. Early in Elizabeth’s career she rooted in a civic-engaged public practice, utilizing art as a vehicle to support movements for social change. As an art-educator and community leader, Elizabeth’s curriculum and facilitation is grounded in the belief that all people are inherently creative – to be an artist is to discover, cultivate and share your unique gifts with yourself and others. This core-value is a cornerstone of her work; communicated throughout her community oriented public art projects, art workshops and trainings to hundreds of participants nation wide. In addition to her formal art training in New York, Vermont and Italy, over the past fifteen years, Elizabeth has worked closely with master healers, attended various workshop and trainings in the healing arts. This commitment to education and self-betterment has informed and seasoned her natural talents and integrated into her community based endeavors, current private healing practice and personal art making. In 2011 Elizabeth returned home to NYC and currently resides in Brooklyn, NY where she maintains an active studio practice, works as a consultant for Education community-based programs.  In addition, Elizabeth engages private clients and groups an integrated life-coach and energy healer. www.elizabethtraina.com and www.elizabethtrainacoach.com

The Doors I Carry With Me: Part II

What I’m trying to say is, it was just interesting for me to look back and realize how typical my upbringing was in some ways as a white womyn from the South… In some ways it seems unusual, and in some ways it is so typical.”

-Virginia, August 2014


 

Looking at this quote from my oral history again, it reminds me of parallel conversations I have had about being from the South. These conversations seem to take one of two routes. 1) Why do I care that I’m southern? Isn’t it like being from anywhere else? As a matter of fact, isn’t the South just a backwards version of other places in the United States? I’d play that down if I were you… Or, 2) You’re right, it is the most unique, mysterious, fun, quirky place on earth!  Ahhh, the people, the food, the PRICES.  Oh, you’re from Connecticut? Sucks for you! Well, you can come and visit any time and come back after that, ya hear?!

I am not going to lie, like any good southerner, I’ve fed into either of these stereotypes depending on the circumstances.  As comfortable as it is for me to operate between these extremes, there are tangible realities in the grey area that this quote hints at. This quote also speaks to the doors that live inside me.

Doors. Doors open and close.  They are a passageway and a divider.  You must go through a doorway to get to what’s on the other side.  Doors are easy to hide behind.  They are what you invite others through.  They are a space of negotiating identities.  They are built to mark gender, class, race, and physical ability.  They are held open for some and left closing for others. Doors are connected to walls. They are designed to permit entry or say “Keep Out!”  I have many doors inside me.  My doors come in many shapes and sizes; some are hand-made by yours truly, others were made for me, and others are the cookie-cutter, home-depot variety I picked up somewhere along the way that match the neighbor’s.   Some swing open, leading me into knowing myself better, others are heavy and remain closed until I push them.

My identity shifts with the flow of time; I constantly take on various aspects of new and old experiences.  I am not always one type of southerner, one type of white person, one type of womyn. These doors inside me, however, make me who I am now and connect me to the many “whos” I will be.  They move, but are always there.  I am and can be many things according to how I work my doors, but that fluidity does not absolve me of responsibility or mean that my way of being is inconsequential. The doors I choose to open and shut inside me have consequences.  For a long time, I wanted to keep many of my doors closed; fearing what would happen should I reveal them to others. I clung to them as my secret friends.  Instead, I am choosing now to see them as resources.  I am responsible for knowing those doors–using them intentionally and with care–and in order to do that, I must dig into their meaning.

In the selection of doors I have included below, I reflect on specific moments in my oral history. They are a collage of three pieces that resonate with a feeling of coming home within myself.  In sharing this collection of vignettes, I am trying to open doors of communication about what it means to be from the South.

Whispering Behind Closed Doors.

Listening to my oral history, I realized that much of my experience talking and hearing about race as a young person occurred behind closed doors, in hushed tones, and with other white people.  As I had to strain in order to hear, these memories are seared into my mind.  After getting back in the car and rolling the door shut, a family friend I spent nearly every day between ages 1-9 with would tell us “the truth” about people we had just seen in the Walmart based on their race, and reminded us to marry white boys.  I heard hushed stories about my great uncle, a man with dwarfism who endured being a guinea pig for “stretching” experiments, performing in blackface as a form of income.  Hearing my grandmother talk about race, she whispered.  I picked up on this behavior and whispered questions about what it meant to be a white family with roots in the South.  I both wanted to open that door and was terrified to hear the answers that might come walking through it.  The muffled reply was usually, “I don’t know much about that.”

The register of these conversations reached an audible level at school.  There, it seemed perfectly normal to talk about race and gender.  The first time I remember recognizing my whiteness as part of my identity was at the lunch table in middle school. My friends often discussed who was an “oreo” which meant being “black on the outside, white on the inside.” In my case, the “uh-oh oreo” phenomenon was the question. Was I white on the outside and black on the inside?  I wanted to be an uh-oreo, but no one could be sure because so many of the things I said or did were “white things.”  What did it meant to do a white thing, I wondered. Sure that my parents would be confused if I asked them and trusting my friends who seemed to be assured of their statements, I decided to go with their explanations. I was pretty much white.

Opening Doors

In my oral history, I talked about how my dad “really opens doors for me”.  That’s another way of saying, “I have a really great dad who cares a lot about me.”  It’s also code for the ways in which I receive class privilege from him and the white and class networks in which I participate. It signals to the privileges I have from growing up in a classically nuclear white family and alludes to what opportunities are open to me as a white, upper-middle class person. For example, two weeks after I graduated from college, I began working for a consulting firm.  I first learned about the job three years prior after my dad met the head of the firm on a plane flying from Florida to North Carolina and they exchanged information.  Over the course of two years I formed a professional relationship with the (white) woman my dad had met on a plane.  Upon graduating from college, I had a job offer.  There was no formal application process. There are a lot of reasons why this all worked out the way it did, but one of those is the undeniable fact that my dad was on a plane, was bumped up to first class, and had a business card at the ready (as he always does).

Don’t stand in the doorway

The mobility this job afforded me made it possible for me to move to Providence, Rhode Island. Yes, you may be wondering, out of all options, why did I choose to move to Providence, Rhode Island?  Well, after a few beers with a dear friend, I just up and agreed to move with her. That’s how it went down.  The fact that I, without much thought at all really, decided to move 681 miles is in part due to what supportive friends might euphemistically call spontaneity, but is really my enduring impulsivity.  It is also a manifestation of ability to think in those terms.  The historical and literary narratives of escape from the South to the North have taken on new and weighty iterations today.  My story is far from most of the political facts and motives that lead people to move out of the South.  Making that decision over a few beers had little to do with getting “the hell out of the South.” Behind the hastiness of my decision, however, was a longstanding curiosity about how I had been shaped as a white womyn who grew up in the South.  Clearly, I’m still figuring that one out.  And I always will be.

Throughout my oral history, I struggled with wondering: Is my southernness a door? What do I do with that door?  Class, race, gender, sexuality, and other structures of privilege and oppression that make up ourselves and society are as central in the South as they are in any other place in the U.S.  Yet, my story is based on a specific history of a specific region.  Michel Rolph-Trouillot, a complete badass, once wrote, “We are never as steeped in history as when we pretend not to be, but if we stop pretending we may gain in understanding what we lose in false innocence.” These vignettes don’t tell my whole story, but they tell some of it.  While this is but one outlet for me to explore the doors that live inside me and why they are important for me to know, move, and swing, I hope they offer at least some insight into the important questions that arise out of confronting the lands that produce us.
*google maps

This part 2 of the “Remembering Together” oral history series. Read Part 1: On Being Interviewed here

Ways with Food

We are what we eat.
What we eat makes us who we are.
We make ourselves through what we eat.
The food we make, makes us.

Food is central to identity, both individual and collective. Psychic and political. Emotional and economic. That is why there is a field of inquiry dedicated to food, Foodways. It refers to the the cultural, social and economic practices relating to the production and consumption of food. The field of intersections that spiral out from food.

Often we encounter the South through food (like this chef in the Bronx ). Southern food travels throughout the world as southerners migrate, and similarly Southern cuisine is born out of a contact zone of culinary heritages which has continued to transform with the influx of travelers and migrants who now call the South home.

Southern food carves out spaces in new geographies and new cuisines carve out space within Southern foodways.

The links between land, food, race, economics, politics, culture and identity are tightly woven in the South. We can’t talk about food in the south without talking about the political and economic implications of food and agriculture – the plantation and the slave trade, migrant labor and immigration policies – intimately linking the South to the Caribbean, West Africa, Europe and Latin America.

This is why I’m excited to build out a series dedicated to food. Ways with Food is a place to stir up, marinate and serve up our questions, reflections and stories about food.

to cook.conjure.create

When we cook, we nurture. We feed ourselves, our souls, our families, our communities, our histories. We re-member our ancestors. They come to us scents and tastes. Guide our hands as we stir. We travel to new places. We make ourselves full. We make ourselves whole.

Cooking is conjuring. It is transforming. Making something from nothing. It is alchemy. The transmutation of properties in complex spiritual and chemical reactions that serve to sustain life.

Cooking is time travel. It takes me back to the kitchen of my childhood. To the roots of where I come from. To places that bring me comfort and joy. To places I might never physically go.

Cooking is community. As I chop, my mother and grandmother’s hands guide me (as well as the various cooking show hosts I learned from on the Food Network during ages 8-16 years old). They join me in my New York apartment thousands of miles away from where they are. Their warmth fills the kitchen as the oven heats up.

Cooking is soothingly satisfying. It is tangible. Tasks are completed, ingredients combined, and something is made. We live in a time where I can work a full day without producing one physical thing. I need to get my hands into the elements. In water and fire. Feel heat and wet. Hot cold gooey sticky sharp rough. The motions put me at ease and always result in a tangible thing that I can touch, look at, share, and consume.

I’ve recently had a very strong desire to cook. An urge to get in the kitchen. I couldn’t really put a finger on what exactly I had such a strong desire to bake an apple pie. To make pumpkin bread from scratch. This was particularly curious because I was in the midst of a period of general lethargy and lack of motivation about everything else in my life. And then I of course decided that I “wasn’t allowed” to make an apple pie, because I “should” be doing all of these other “productive” – professional, artistic, etc – things.

It took me a while to recognize that I was craving healing. Healing through my own hands.


Ways with Food is a place to stir up, marinate and serve up our questions, reflections and stories about food.

What We’re Reading: A word on a book concerning geography…

Demonic Grounds

In Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle , Katherine McKittrick creates a rich territory for the fields of black feminism, black studies and geography to intersect and learn from one another by considering the geographic spaces that black women both analyze and shape regularly.  As she puts it in her introduction, McKittrick sees the geographies of black women as, “a conceptual arena through which more humanly workable geographies can be and are imagined.” [1]  She is interested in critiquing traditional geographies (geographies of domination,) their relationship with black women’s geographies and narratives that perpetuate seeing black lives and histories as “ungeographic.”[2] Inspired by Sylvia Wynter, she uses the word “demonic” to explain that this book does not seek to uncover the lost stories of black women, but to create a “discussion about what black women’s historical-contextual locations bring to bear on our present geographic organization.”[3]  What can it mean for people to better understand the spaces black women move in and work on as we live in spaces structured around traditional geographies?  What can these spaces show us?  What is “dangerous” about those spaces? McKittrick weaves together the work of writers and theorists like Olaudah Equiano, Octavia Butler, Neil Smith and Patricia Hill Collins in chapters on spaces like the auction block, black Canada, and books like Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

[1] McKittrick, Katherine. Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle. (Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), xii.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., xxvi


The “What We’re Reading” Series
We decided to create this series of posts for a couple of reasons.  While we’re pulling on lots of different sources when thinking about Broadly Speaking, we don’t always get to cite all the books that inform/inspire our writing.  We hope this space serves as a more accessible archive of the stuff we’re reading these days.  Also, we love a good book list, so really we’re just trying to pay it forward. If there are books you want to recommend to us, please send us an email at broadlyspeakingthesouth@gmail.com!