North York and The South: A Conversation with Jamila Reddy and Austin Monroe

Austin Monroe is one of those people. One of those people who will have things like 50 year retrospectives and honorary degrees from institutions who use his theories as their approach. He’s one of those people whose name will turn into a verb. Who young people will be shamed—by other young people—for not knowing. What I meant to say is: Austin is going to change the world. I know this, because he already is.

Living in this Black/woman body compels me to acknowledge the fact that I understand what it means to occupy that which does not belong to you. I imagine, in the way one imagines something they have already seen, that living in a Black/man body is to know this un-belonging.

Austin is one of those people who occupies a body that neither belongs nor belongs to you. One of those people who knows it, and is trying to make it untrue.

Austin is the brains and heart behind North York, a socio-creative [ad]venture intended to create spaces that serve to inspire and empower people to function as their truest and best selves. Established in the Fall of 2010, North York is a Brooklyn based collective of radical dreamers/subversives/queers&queens, many of whom have migrated from the South. The North York manifesto reads, “We’re a tribe of people who see value in all cultures and seek to celebrate creative expression in various forms. We reject the notions of high or low culture; we are as inspired by music as we are by food as we are by fashion as we are by nightlife as we are by art. North York exists to make cool shit happen. We are forward-thinkers who make the spaces we want to see exist now. We want to create spaces that inspire you and make you feel at home. North York honors our diverse and at times disparate histories and identities. North York is home. North York is about who we are now.”

I spoke with Austin about what it means to create space, the heart of Black American Culture, and how road trips through the Carolinas were the first journeys in a place we always knew we were leaving.

Oh, and Beyoncé. Of course.


 North York

JAMILA: What does it mean to create space?

AUSTIN: Creating space is, in a way, self-explanatory. It can both be a physical or mental space wherein a person, a group of people, a theory, or an idea is allowed to be. So more than thinking about what it means to create space, I’m interested in the implications of creating space—what hat the intentionality behind creating a certain space—or a creating a certain vibe—is.

J: What was the genesis of the idea to create North York?

A: It was a culmination of years and years engaging with media culture and events and everyday people and just not seeing certain images being shown and certain ideals being represented. I was talking to a friend of mine who helped found a start up, and he was talking about entrepreneurship, and the baseline is: you’re someone who has located a gap, and your product or service or company should exist to fill that gap—to fill that void. So the genesis of the idea was bridging those gaps that exist.

J: So what is the gap that you want to fill?

A: On a selfish level, it’s the desire to have ownership over my experience—to put something into the world that I think is good. It’s about making creative space for myself and for other people.

Movement

J: Talk to me about your move to New York. You moved to New York from North Carolina. Why?

A: That was a lifelong dream. It was always going to happen at some point, and the stars just aligned—a job worked out, and then an apartment worked out, and then three weeks later, I was moved. So that’s how that went down.

J: What was that dream? I’ve always dreamed of moving across the country. In my mind, California was the farthest place from home. If I had to look at a map and pick a place, I was like, “this is as far as I can get.”

A: Why did you want to go so far?

J: It’s not even that I was trying to escape from what I knew or anything like that—it really wasn’t even that serious. It was just a place that I thought would be most different. I felt really different growing up, so it was a place I felt was aligned with my identity. I was like, “I feel different, and this place that is so far must be different, too, by virtue of its distance.” My mom moved to California in her twenties, and there are all these Out West narratives… I just sort of romanticized it. I still sort of feel that way. And I knew that there wasn’t slavery. Won’t no plantations in California.

A: I think that’s relevant, because I always identified with the narrative of migration and the people who are pursuing a new dream—a new identity. So yeah, that’s absolutely a part of it.

J: That’s so true—migration is all about the pursuit of a new identity. That’s what it’s about. For me, I idealized the West, not because I wanted to pursue a new identity, necessarily, but because I wanted the environment to be more integral to my identity. I wanted there to be integrity between my identity and environment, and I felt like where I was, I did not have that. So the dream wasn’t to find a new identity, it was to find a new place for my current identity to exist.

A: As far as I’m concerned, New York is the center of the world. This is where any and all things can and do happen. I feel like it’s good a place as any to come and try to live out some dreams and goals and to create a little world for myself as much as possible.

J: Word. So if that’s always been a childhood dream, why now? You said the stars aligned, but did it feel urgent? Or was it just the natural flow?

A: A little bit of both. I had spent two years or so after college just kind of learning—on n a personal level—learning about myself and spirituality. I spent that time doing a lot of personal work to let go of fear narratives that I had. When I started to get really comfortable with a lot of the new stuff I was learning, I was no longer comfortable standing still, or doing what I felt like was standing still. And so I knew I had to move –both physically and spiritually/mentally—So I moved.

Southern Space

J: What about the South do you embrace, and what do you reject?

A: I like the South. I really like the pleasantries and the politeness, there’s something very cute and inviting and intentional about that. And I think Southerners tend to coexist with nature in an interesting way, because there’s so much of it, specifically in the Southeast. I feel like it’s a very Black space. It’s where Black American culture started and came to be. So I feel at home with all of that—the food, the music, the slang—it all feels really good. I was going to say I reject the small-mindedness and the idea that there is a proper way to be, but I feel like you kind of encounter that everywhere. Now, living outside of the South, I can’t honestly say that that’s endemic to the South.

J: To respond to what you said about Black culture, I feel like I have always been like, “is this a Black thing, or a Southern thing?” So much of what I experience, I don’t know if it’s a Black thing or a Southern thing. And for the small-mindedness thing, I find that I do sort of believe that about the South, but I wonder if that’s because I’ve believed the narratives that have been put out about the South. But all the homies—all my friends from the South—are not that.

A: I think it’s kind of misguided to suggest that some super-progressive utopia exists in this country. I haven’t seen it, in the South or otherwise. But the people who I have personal relationships with absolutely reflect an actual progressive worldview. Most of the people I know from the South are excellent.

J: What are some personal ways—if at all—you experienced the legacy of slavery in the South? In terms of culture or general experience or energy?

A: That’s a really big question.

J: It is. It’s huge.

A: Everything is the legacy of slavery. Honestly, everything. So of course, I have. Be more specific.

J: Okay, that’s fair.

A: Because it’s everywhere.

J: What made me ask this question was – part of the reason I felt I wanted to move out of the South was because I wanted to experience place that wasn’t marked—as marked—by this huge traumatic thing that, to me, feels like it’s very much in the ground. In North Carolina, there are all of these farms and plantations. Its literally in the Earth there; its in the infrastructure. It’s everywhere. I felt like I was standing on graves of people who were… you know? I just felt like I was walking on it. Like slavery was under my feet. I just wanted to be in a place that didn’t have that same presence.

A: The legacy of it is there. For sure. There’s something. I don’t know if I can name it. But it’s there. There is a difference.

J: There is a difference. But why is it so hard to name?

Belonging

A: My mom is from Cabarrus county. And in Cabarrus county there are some very rural areas. If you go into some of those houses, they straight up still looks like slave shacks. I don’t know that they are, but for some people, the standard of living is still that.  My great aunt and uncle, they had this house made of wooden slats, and there were gaps in the slats, and they had a rusted tin roof. They didn’t have running water, they didn’t have any heat or AC, they had a woodfire stove. They both passed away between 2007 and 2010. That kind of experience was still there in 2010.

J: That’s nuts. How do you not have running water?

A: They had electricity, but the whole house was made out of wood and a tin roof. On this back gravel road, 30 minutes outside of Charlotte. I grew up going to that house. That’s an experience.

J: Oh my god. That’s so nuts.

A: So yeah, the access is right there. These structures are still standing.

J: That’s so interesting. There were a lot of reminders for me in the South. There were a lot of reminders that we weren’t so far removed from being slaves. And I think that was reason for being like, “All right. I gotta go.” I remember driving to the beach and we would stop in gas stations and be terrified. Terrified. Absolutely terrified. And I feel like the unspoken fear was “these white people think we should be slaves.” These white people in these gas stations, selling confederate flags… they’re everywhere. I feel like there was a resentment that I felt from these white people.

A: For sure.

J: The memory of slavery was still something that felt sweet, instead of something that felt like a place of shame.

A: It felt like something they had lost.

J: Totally. It felt like something that they had lost.

A: I remember that we were driving back from Florida or Georgia or something, and we stopped at this restaurant, it looked like a well-lit, modern restaurant, and we were the only Black people in there. I might be dramatizing this, but I feel like the whole place got silent when we walked in. And we were seated eventually, and then we were not served. We waited. We sat there for 45 minutes. And eventually we were like, “Alright.”

J: You can only have so many experiences of blatant racism that you can call coincidence.

A: Yeah. It’s crazy. We were not served. This was in the 2000s. So yeah, the legacy is real there.

J: Yeah. All of those little reminders that you’re not welcome… I just feel like they were too abundant. I had to roll out.

A: Too abundant for sure.

J: So where do you feel like your home is? What does home feel like?

A: I don’t know. In my hometown and state and region there are so many feelings of home-ness and safety but also so many feelings of dispossession—feeling like I didn’t really belong. So I guess a more full definition or a more full understanding of home, for me, is that it isn’t necessary a physical place. I think as long have people who I love and support me, then I can rock anywhere. Honestly. I think New York is starting to feel like home. When I went to visit over the holidays, I was definitely glad to be back. But it felt distinctly different. It didn’t feel like a space that was my own, or a place that was my own.

J: Do you mean your house? Or North Carolina?

A: Both. It’s like, I love this place, and I love these people. But this isn’t my place.


 These Other Southerners:

Austin Monroe is a curator, event planner and student living in New York.

Visit North York’s Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/NorthYorkCreative?pnref=about.overview

Jamila Reddy

Jamila Reddy

Jamila Reddy is a writer, director, and facilitator of dreams based currently in Brooklyn (but always in pursuit of magic wherever it may be). She spends her days exploring, reflecting, and trying to get free.  As a queer/Black/Southern woman, Jamila is thankful for language and the light it shines on the dark corners of transformation. She received BAs in Sociology and Dramatic Arts from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  She recently completed and self-published her collection of poems, the consequence of silence. 

http://jamilareddy.com/

© Copyright Jamila Reddy 2015


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

Dig Deep, Stand Firm: Part 2

Alison and family circa 1992

Alison and family circa 1992. She’s the little blond lady in the sailor outfit with the very serious face.

I mean it had always been a thing, like…

*heavy pause/sigh*

… and I think, I’m sure some stuff happened at Friends School, but I remember more not there, like at horse back riding, when I was, this was still when I was in elementary school, like, my mom picking me up and someone being like, ” Are you adopted?” and me having to explain that, like, no I wasn’t.

And I think I’ve told you this, like, grocery story lanes were alway places where people would be like – and I don’t know – I actually don’t know how often it happened. It feels like it happened a lot, but I don’t know if it just happened some key times. But, people would ask if my mom was our nanny. And she would just say, “No. They are mine.” And then we would like pack up our groceries and go.

Ummmm, and like always like just like just standing next to her at like banks or something. Or like waiting for her to do some errand. And people would be talking to her like,

“Oh what do you need” whatever, and then look at me and be like

*high pitched voice reserved for talking with children* “Oh, what are you here for?” and I’m like “I’m with her.”

So I think it always was an issue.

– Alison, August 2014


“It has always been an issue.” My racial identity that is. Because I don’t “make sense” given how race has been constructed and functions in this world. In the United States. In the South. I am accustomed to the questioning of my identity in public. I consider it normal for someone to look at me, ask who I am or where I am from, and then act in disbelief, sometimes with a shocked and doubtful, “No you’re not!” when I tell them. This type of encounter happens regularly.

And in some ways it is understandable. As I said, I don’t “make sense.” More specifically, my body doesn’t make sense. I’ve recently taken to describing myself as a “light-to-white appearing” person. What I mean by that is I have blue eyes, blond hair (which was towhead, white-blond when I was younger) and skin that burns in the sun, turning more red than golden brown. What this outward appearance doesn’t often convey, is that I am a multi-racial woman of Afro-Caribbean heritage. My mother was born in Jamaica to afro-Jamaican and Cuban parents. Like Jamaica, my mother’s background is very mixed, but she is also obviously coded as black. We often refer to my mother’s family as the UN because it probably encompasses more people (my grandfather was one of 12) and more colors than most international diplomatic gatherings. My father is white, grew up in Ohio, and the Kibbe-clan is descended from Mayflower-era Puritans and Old English stock.

So, I understand that there is a bit of incongruence between my physical form and my cultural, racial, ethnic identity. I don’t automatically fault people for being surprised or confused.

But it does get tiring. I deal with this moment of “coming out” as multi-racial in a variety of ways, depending on my mood (shout out to this multi-racial sister who so eloquently talks about this process here). Sometimes I offer the full “Afterschool Special” version of my family history. On less generous days I respond with a simple “yes” when someone asks if my mother is really black, and leave the asker to figure out the rest.

But either way, it is something I have to deal with. And I am not complaining. I am IN LOVE with my history and identity. And I realize that I am lucky to be an “interjection” in our racial scaffolding. That introducing myself can be a doorway to unpacking racial constructs, misconceptions, and attitudes. That my body is in itself a complication of how we understand race and identity. And I also recognize that how I look means that I benefit from white privilege. I don’t pretend to understand the experience of going through this world with darker skin. I know that how I am read racially greatly impacts how I am treated and how I am allowed to navigate through the world. But I also have come to realize that despite the way I appear, my life experience is distinctly non-white. I do not go through the world not having to think about or be aware of race. And I also proudly claim the fullness of my culture and heritage.

But even though I understand where it comes from, this questioning and doubt still takes its toll. Having my identity and history constantly questioned has led to a certain sense of precariousness. Of fraudulence. For my entire life strangers have felt like they have a right to tell me who I am. To question my descriptions of myself. To assert their feelings, understanding, and sometimes bullshit and baggage, onto me and my body. To question where I belong. Because of this, I feel like I always need to be ready to explain myself. I live in “ready mode” with an explanation for who I am in my back pocket. And deeper in that pocket, a fear that perhaps I really am “not” the things I say I am. Because if others don’t see it in me, then perhaps it’s not true.

I heard this precariousness manifested throughout the interview.

A large part of my oral history interview was spent discussing race. I would say it took up a good 70% of the time. Which is fitting because I am usually thinking about it. I think the shaky ground that my racial identity sits upon, translates into how I see myself in other realms – professionally, romantically, geographically, astrologically. My “in-betweeness” feels very salient.

Some of the stories that came up are ones that are well rehearsed and recited – such as the story about my mother being asked if she was the nanny. Listening to myself tell these stories I tell about myself – these mini-monologues – linked together all at one time, I realized how much I work to make sense of myself.

To map myself.

Making sense of myself for myself, I make myself legible.

I translate myself by telling these stories over and over and over again.

At this point in my life I am particularly invested in making sense of myself, partly because I’m currently in community with many amazing black womyn artists. And starting with my mother, black women have always been my role models. I’m trying to figure out how I fit into it all, especially as I continue to grow up and into myself and my womanhood. How do I navigate the simultaneous reality of my blackness and my white privilege? And more specifically, how do me and my art work fit in? Will I always need to “explain myself”?

I am interested in healing this sense of precariousness, this feeling that who I am is always on shaky ground. There is no way to change how people respond to me. And given the history of skin tone and bodies, mine will always pose questions. But what I can do is dive deep into my experience and personal history so that I feel strong standing up and fully taking up my space. So I can trust my voice and speak, sing, and dance my truth. This oral history piece, this blog, the work I’m doing as an artist now – it is all about a deep dive into myself. About diving into the quick sand instead of trying to stand still in it or fight it with clompy steps.

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

The Doors I Carry With Me: Part I

On Being Interviewed

The opportunity to consider my record, the journey that produced me (in the language of Baldwin) and the ways that journey stays with me in everything I do, doesn’t come around so often. As a white person, not only is that part of how my privilege works (I don’t have to think about it), but also there aren’t many times people care to hear about how I think my privilege has worked. No one wants to sit down with me while I detail the ways I see how I have been leveraged into certain places and positions because I am white.  Aaaaand I don’t blame them.  Mostly because it’s an incomplete picture.  So when I did have the chance to voice my histories through considering my journey, it was weird, a little bit awkward, and I sensed old specters of white guilt lurking. It was bewildering to hear myself being so honest with Alison and at the same time, as I fumbled through the ways my whiteness, class, southerness and “background” has been at work in the life I have lead thus far, I felt like I was arriving from a long trip–finally at home with myself.  It was nerve-wracking and, at the same time, invigorating because I was hearing myself think about what it means to be myself. What does this type of listening have to teach me about moving forward as a woman, feminist and ally to a variety of struggles from an honest place within myself. Listening to my oral history was like encountering a door, or many doors, actually.  Hearing myself come out of hiding in that safe space, walking through the door that day, I realized that it was a door I had created and that I have many doors I carry with me.
Coming Soon “The Doors I Carry With Me: Part II”

Re-Membering Together

“We know, in the case of the person, that whoever cannot tell himself the truth about his past is trapped in it, is immobilized in the prison of his undiscovered self. This is also true of nations… Societies never know it, but the war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war, and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself and, with that revelation, to make freedom real.”
– James Baldwin, “The Creative Process”

“The personal is political”

“Dig into a dialect of your own design”
– Madlines the Lioness

“History cannot be held privately”
– Della Pollock, Remembering

“Now, anyone who has ever been compelled to think about it—anyone, for example, who has ever been in love—knows that the one face that one can never see is one’s own face. One’s lover—or one’s brother, or one’s enemy—sees the face you wear, and this face can elicit the most extraordinary reactions….the truth about us is always at variance with what we wish to be. The human effort is to bring these two realities into a relationship resembling reconciliation.”
– James Baldwin, “The Creative Process”


 

As Virginia and I discussed beginning “Broadly Speaking”, we began to wonder what might come out of doing oral histories with each other. We originally imagined it as a way to introduce ourselves to you, our readers. We also saw it as an opportunity to be reflexive. Oral history and ethnography are central to both of our professional and creative practices, but we are usually the interviewers. We felt it was important to understand that process from the interviewee perspective.

Participating in this process was incredible. It was unique because the two of us are very close friends and have been a part of each others lives for almost half of the time we have been alive. We have been essential to each other in our process of growing up and into ourselves. Interviewing and being interviewed by a close friend allowed our conversations to be open. The process also challenged us as interviewers and revealed new things about our relationship and ourselves. It heightened our sense of the distinction about what’s important to record. What conversations need to be captured? We were re-membering together – retelling stories that we both lived – but we were also learning new things about each other. Elements that shaped the other before we knew them, as well as things that we hadn’t known were happening, even though we were a part of each other’s lives at the time. What came out in the combined 4 hours of interviewing is a mosaic of the highly personal, the very analytic, the deeply insightful, and bouts of explosive laughter.

The process of re-listening to our own interviews and writing reflections was intense. Rarely do we have the opportunity to listen closely to ourselves. We had to relive and come to terms with not just our stories, but also the ways we tell those stories. And what that tells us about ourselves. We had a rare opportunity to see and listen to the “face” that we don’t often have to look at. In the process of attempting to answer our two straightforward questions – “What is important for readers to know about us?” and “What is it like to be interviewed?” – we had to dig into our personal nuances, complexities and shadows.

We decided to publish these in two parts, one reflecting on the experience of being interviewed and reflecting on short segments of our oral history interviews.

Thank you for remembering with us.

“The Doors I Carry With Me: Part 1 – Being Interviewed” by Virginia
“The Doors I Carry With Me: Part 2” by Virginia (coming soon!)

“Dig Deep, Stand Firm: Part 1 – Being Interviewed” by Alison
Dig Deep, Stand Firm: Part 2 ” by Alison

Dig Deep, Stand Firm: Part 1

On Being Interviewed

There is something special about being interviewed.

Hearing myself tell my life story is eerily familiar and refreshingly strange.

There is a comfort in the stories – in knowing the endings and the feelings intimately.
There is a newness in hearing my voice outside of myself.
Outside of my body — coming into me instead of coming out of me.
There is a discomfort in sitting in my past reality and letting it wash over me. Particularly the things I took care to fold, pack up, and walk away from.

I am trying to be generous with myself.
There is a tendency to cheapen things in the past, especially from my youth. I want to pass it off with a preceding, “Well, I was 13…” or “It was one of those teenage things…” or simply a “whatever.” As if any of these qualifiers mean I don’t have to account for “it.”
Deal with “it”. Acknowledge that at the time those emotions, experiences, people, fears were my full reality. I couldn’t dismiss them because they were all I had.

If I was listening to someone else, I would listen to their speech patterns and appreciate them without judgement as a part of the way that person expresses themselves. When listening to myself I am full of critique — why didn’t I finish that sentence, I mumbled here, etc. I am a performer after all, I want to be heard a certain way. But this is how I sound. I realized my mother is right, I do mumble. I don’t finish my sentences, numping from one thought to the next and daring my listener to follow.

Also, I say “you” when I’m really talking about myself. I give myself speeches, directing everything at “you” as if I am outside of myself.

I’m listening for poetry.

For monologues. For things to put in the choreo-poem I am writing. I’m listening to the oral history for parts to be used in the piece I’m creating.

I’m listening for poetry.

I was surprised at how “white” my voice sounds. I know that is a very problematic statement. And I’m not even sure what it means. But I couldn’t keep it from popping into my head. So even when people can’t see my blonde hair and light skin, hearing my voice probably cues them to think I am white, right? I have spent a lot of time thinking about how my body is seen racially, but not nearly as much time thinking about how I am heard and how that is coded.

Listening to this makes me want to do oral history with my mom.
Will my kids or grandkids listen to this?
I wish I could hear my ancestors re-tell their lives.


Part of me wants this essay to be a spitting out of who I am. A quick and dirty introduction to the “essential facts you need to know about Alison.”

Born in McAllen, Texas. Mother from Jamaica, raised in Jamaica, Queens, NYC. Father from outside Cleveland Ohio. Mother brown. Father white. Youngest of three. One older brother and one older sister. Raised in Carrboro, NC. Attended Montessori schools, Quaker school and a two-year stint in public middle school. Finished high school early to travel to Haiti. Went to Duke University for college (also went to UNC). Studied anthropology and public policy. Graduated 2012. Interned at the White House. Worked at the Kennedy Center. Was a barista and a waitress in DC. Move to San Francisco and NYC for an arts consulting fellowship. Landed in NYC. Working to be her full creative self as a freelance artists, arts administrator and teaching artist.

But in listening to my interview, I realize that a lot of the “juice” lies beyond the facts. And between the facts. And in the space created by the things I chose to tell, how I told them, and what I didn’t tell.

There is so much I chose not to say. And in hearing the absence of those parts, I realize that it is easy for everydayness to get lost in the retelling of memory. I remembered big events and ideas and I turn them into narratives and explanations. And then I dogear them in my mind, highlight them as “worthy” of retelling. In my oral history I heard these ideas and feeling analyzed and overlayed with broad strokes.

But those tiny details, the little dots — like how my mom yelled up the steps to me every morning. Or that brief period she made Pillsbury Flaky biscuits every morning. And the SlimFast shakes for snack phase. And the chinese dumping phase. (There were a lot food phases). Which seat was “mine” in our 1996 Honda Odyssey. Sitting and watching all of my sisters soccer practices. The couch in our living room. The fights over who would walk the dog.

These are the little everyday details that fill in those big lines. What really makes the tapestry and terrain of life.

I’m interested in this everdayness. Perhaps because it is often what we find so NOT interesting about our lives. Until we learn about someone else’s everydayness and how different it is from our own. This oral history is part of taking a deep dive into myself, and I realize this “deep dive” requires validating these everyday details just as much as the big picture. Acknowledging them as key shapers of my life and myself.

Read “Dig Deep Stand Firm: Part 2” here