I have been writing about ways I learned who I am, trying to write moments in the moment. I was hoping to approach questions of race,  gender, and class. These moments happen in context: the grid and grids of power within which I exist. In the end, understanding myself is not enough. I have to see and work to change the context in which I exist.

 

I. HOW DO WE KNOW WHO WE ARE?

 

1. DEFINITION

When I was twelve, my mother explained homosexuality: Remember those two drunk men you saw on Christopher. You said they were up against one another, fighting. They were not fighting. They were homosexuals.

 

2. DON’T TELL

 

I was a school child

Don’t tell  jobs and work.

not even your best friend

 

and if you ask why,

there is something wrong with you.

 

Don’t tell about, you know.

 

Someone could use it against

 

We could be eaten alive.

 

 

 

3. FILL IN THE BLANKS

Another piece of instruction about homosexuality and lesbianism from my mother:

I was in late high school or early college. She told me about The Well of Loneliness. She said it was about lesbians. She said it was about unrequited love. She said in the end the main character kills herself.  She said it was a good book. I never read it.

 

4. HIGH SCHOOL FOLLIES

We were painting at our easels, the room redolent of oil paints and turpentine. Nancy went to wash out her brushes and the classmate at the next easel said, “She and Lisette were kissing at the party last Saturday.”

“Siciliano?” as if there were more than one Lisette.

Another easel said, “They were making out.”

The easel next to me said, “It was disgusting.”

 

Thursday. We sat in a horse shoe, working on contour drawings. The door opened. Harry of course. Late of course. People sniggered, yes, actually sniggered, as usual when Harry appeared. He was a pimply sixteen year old with a shock of hair as red as an abrasion, and he wore a soft green crew neck sweater. Everyone knew, if you wore green on Thursday, you were queer and anyway Harry had never made any attempt to conceal his lisp or muscle up on his wrist. He entered classrooms alone. He ate alone in the lunchroom. Some times, he wore a bow tie. I had heard he lived on The East Side, which in Manhattan tended to mean money, tended to mean WASP.

He pulled out his pencil case and set to work. Maybe it didn’t help that he was unskillful and timid as an artist.

“Faggot,” someone said, not too quietly, but below the teachers’ radar. Maybe we wouldn’t have treated him any better if he’d been an artistic genius. It was the late 50s. Though some of our classmates were openly funny, they were otherwise conformist. No one stepped forward to advocate for him. We left him alone as if he were poison because he was flagrant and defenseless and alone.

 

There was the gym teacher, tall, lithe, with sleek dark hair, gold skin, olive dark eyes. She was a “Mrs.,” but she and another woman teacher were always together and I think maybe someone had seen them kissing or someone had said they had seen them.

There was my classmate Joaqin, tall thin, his shoulders bony, his eyes dark and haunted. It was the era of the female model Twiggy. Joaquin’s art was wispy, more line and inference than the abstract painted blocks and buxom Matisse imitations so many of us produced.

At the senior varsity show, Joaquin brought down the house when he appeared as the popular gym teacher. He did it so convincingly, piling cliche upon cliche. In those days, to declare you were queer, you flamed and ignited the imaginations, hopes, and fears, of the rest of us in our shocking pink turtlenecks and button down shirts and denim skirts and bohemian black tights. Joaquin and Barry, Nancy and Lisette: the faggots burning among us chicken shits, most of us “liberals,” but afraid to step up.

 

5. COLLEGE

I was at Barnard College when two women were expelled. Two Columbia “men” had scanned the windows of the Barnard dorm with a telescope and seen the two women “in bed together.” The men talked about it in The West End Bar and were overheard. The two women were gone, expelled, sent home. There was no outcry. No one came forward and said, “These are my friends. This is wrong,” or, as was the case for me, “I didn’t know these two, but this is wrong.” The fear of being tainted by association? The fear of retaliation by the college? In this era, a Barnard classmate, not someone I knew, was reportedly sent home. She had brought her horse with her to college and stabled it near Central Park. The college heard that she was dating a groom, or perhaps he was a riding instructor. Quel horreur. Shades of Lady Chatterly. Acting in loco parentis, the college expelled her( and, I assume, her horse).

From at least high school forward, I was schooled: homosexuality was something vague and awful, despite the popular gym teacher and Joaquin’s open and affectionate parody. Its consequence could be life-destroying, even when the particulars of what homosexuality might actually be, were vague in most of our minds. It wasn’t simply high school pecking order and a college’s exercise of power. I was a child of the McCarthy era. I knew that adults had lost their livelihoods and their reputations, never to be regained, simply because it had been alleged that someone was, you know, fill in the blank.

 

My god-mother grew up in vaudeville, where her father was a star. He sang and danced with a coquettish young woman from France. The French singer spoke no English, so my teenage godmother was charged with teaching the singer English. They remained inseparable, one might say bosom (somehow the theatrical secrecy, both fraught and silly, from a distance lends itself to amusement), friends from my godmother’s adolescence, through her many-decades marriage, until the singer’s death in the 1950s. I remember a Christmas when I was in early elementary school when the singer gave me a child’s sewing machine and I remember the magnetism of her small, elegant person, the choreographed strands of black bangs over the dark saucer eyes, the pearls gleaming at ears and on her hand. The entire apartment, and especially my godmother who usually paid great attention to my sister and me, was focused on the singer.

I remember my godmother standing in the hospital room where my mother was dying, although, that death, too, was unspoken. The setting sun from the Hudson was enameling in gold and red the banks of apartment windows facing us. My godmother said, “The night She died. I knew.” And I, by then a declared and “practicing” lesbian, knew whom she meant.

A decade or so later, I spent a week at my god parents’ apartment in New York City. My Godfather was out of town. He asked me to come up from West Virginia to be with my godmother who was now legally blind. It was the week I ate duck for the first time, sitting over trays in the very French living room which was two steps down from the small platform which was their dining room, outside the minute kitchen where you could stand in one spot and simply twirl around to go from sink to fridge to counter to window to stove and arrive back at the sink without ever taking a step.

After dinner one night, maybe that dinner of Chinese duck, my godmother began to of her mid-teens years, around WW I. She had a friend, a girl her own age and they were very close, inseparable in fact, in their bourgeois childhoods on the West Side of Manhattan. I had known this girl’s name (so talented, so gentle, so fine) from my mother, but never in connection with my godmother. I, the West Virginia outlier, the out but quite ordinary school-teaching lesbian in the room, the mother of two, pricked up my ears. A younger girl, maybe an eleven year old, entered the picture. This younger girl was star struck by my godmother’s friend. This younger girl was my mother, my god mother told me, turning to me with her unfocussed eyes swimming in her lenses. And then the girl, the object of both my mother’s and my godmother’s affection, caught diphtheria and died. My godmother sighed and said no more.

 

Both my mothers, knowing I lived as a lesbian with a woman in West Virginia, never said a word to me. By 1979, both had died.


II. WHERE ARE WE IN THE MACHINERY OF THE WORLD? 

LESBIANS ASSAULTED AND/OR KILLED FOR BEING LESBIANS

 

To counter this history of concealments, I had in mind to finish with an inspirational list of queer women, including my mothers. I began by listing a few writers and musicians like Bricktop, figures like Gladys Bentley, but wasn’t satisfied.

I googled, lesbians assaulted and/or killed for being lesbians. This was not research. This was a ten second button push and yet, here they are,  important and human members of our community: people brutalized for who they are. We’ve not come far from that classroom of adolescents frightened by Harry’s undeniable queerness. I want to un-deny and embrace lesbians assaulted and/or killed….

An overwhelming number of people on this list are trans women, and/or  African American trans women.

Just one hit. All these names. You know there are uncounted more.

 

Eudy Simelane, Rebecca Wight, Roxanne Ellis and Michelle Abdill, Julianne Williams and Lollie Winans, Gwen Araujo, Saskia Gunn, Brandon Teena, Chanelle Pickett, Fred Martinez, Nizah Morris, Terrianne Summers, Nireah Johnson, Emonie Spaulding, Ruby Ordenana, Stacey Brown, Ebony Whitaker, Duanna Johnson, Ashley Sweeney, Sanesha Stewart,  Angela Zapata, Nahkia Williams, Ruby Molina, Lateisha Green, Tayzia Elzey, Caprice Curry, Patti Hammond Shaw, Dee Green, Maria Malina Quails, Myra Chanel Ical, Amanda Gonzalez-Andujar, Toni Alston, Dana A. “Chanel” Larkin, Sandy Woulard, Victoria Carmen White, Stacey Blahnik Lee,  Chrissie Bate, – Chrissy Lee Polis,  Rosita Hernandez, CeCe McDonald, Lashai Mclea, Camila GuzmanShelley Hilliard, Cassidy Nathan Vickers, Dee Dee Pearson, Githe Goines, Crain Conaway, JaParker “Deoni” Jones, Coko Williams, Paige Clay, Brandy Martell, Mollie Olgin, 19 years old, and her girlfriend, Kristene Chapa, Tracy Johnson, Tiffany Gooden, Kendall Hampton, Deja Jones, Kyra Cordova, Janette Tovar, Sondra Scarber,  Sasha Fleischman,

 

I have been writing about ways I learned who I am, trying to write moments in the moment, without framing. I was hoping this way to approach questions of race,  gender, and class. These moments are meaningless without context: the grid and grids of power within which I learned. An end question: how do we change the grid of power.

 

 

HOW DO WE KNOW WHO WE ARE?

 

I.

My Jewish mother, and I suppose my Episcopalian father, named me “Faith,” because giving birth to a Jewish child during World War II, or, as my mother called it The War Against Hitler, was an act of faith.

I disliked my name because it was hard for a small child, like my toddler sister, to pronounce. My sister called me “Thaif.” My mother would sit her down. “Say Faith,” my mother would pronounce, emphasizing the F and the TH  with a hiss and an exaggerated pursing of her lips. My sister, she of the dark, dark, eyes would solemnly eye my mother, shape her babyish mouth to mimic my mother and pronounce, “Thaif.” When I entered school in the late 1940s, there were no other children named Faith, not in my class, not in the entire school, not until eight years later when there was one other Faith in my high school.

When I moved into the larger world, people often pronounced the name Faye. The people who did this tended to be Jewish. My mother insisted I must correct people. Her public insistence (though it was my name — not hers ) that I be called by the name she had given me horrified me.

It was in high school that I began to hear: “Faith is not a Jewish name.”

People said “Faith, Hope, and Charity — that’s Christian.”

“It is not. It’s universal,” my mother would sputter.

There were many reasons that I grew up feeling not Jewish enough; my name was one of them.

 

II.

When I was GROWING UP, this was my maternal family constellation:

  • my household of two mothers, my sister, and me on Jane Street, on the western edge of Greenwich Village
  • my maternal grandmother a ten minute walk from our apartment, she in a somewhat grand apartment building on Seventh Avenue between 13th and 14th streets
  • my mother’s brother Bob and his wife, Elaine in what my mother called Jersey

 

The last time my grandmother, in her late 70s or early 80s, spent a weekend in Jersey with my uncle Bob and aunt Elaine, she and Elaine got into it. Grandma Spellman was talking about our family in Europe. Some had been button merchants, with branches in many countries; in some countries although Jews were disfranchised, they were required to serve in the military. When a boy was called for military service, he was moved to a branch of button merchants in another country. Grandma Spellman’s version of our family’s line was that in addition to the Dutch/Spanish/British connection on her husband’s side, her family was German. All German, nothing but German. My Aunt Elaine insisted she, Elaine, knew Grandma had Polish blood and Grandma flew into a rage. Both women did. I think my uncle had to immediately drive his mother and her ruffled feathers back to her apartment on Seventh Avenue in Manhattan. I’m not sure my aunt and grandmother ever made up, before my grandmother’s death when she was 82.

Elaine had an irreverent and acerbic way about her. My sister and I considered ourselves Jewish, though we knew almost nothing and were taught almost nothing by our humanist mother to help us be Jews. I used to hold this against my mother, but now realize that she born in 1909, the baby of four children, born to prosperous and assimilated Jews who attended Temple Emmanuel — in effect a Jewish cathedral on upper Fifth Avenue —was of a generation of Jewish girls who knew little about their Judaism). When my sister and I were in elementary school, our Aunt Elaine called us The Heathens, or The Little Pagans. She herself had been born Jewish. She did this openly in front of us and our uncle and our mother. She did it with a smile and people took it with a smile. My sister and I stilled and remained silent.

 

 

III.

Not long after we returned from living in Haiti for a year, a year of being singular white children in a Black countryside, my mothers decided we would attend services. My mother by affection had a reproduction of a Marc Chagall rabbi in her bedroom. At eight or nine years old, this was Judaism to me. We went to an orthodox synagogue on one of those Greenwich Village streets that cross like creeks from the diagonal of West Fourth to the diagonal of Bleecker and beyond to the roaring trucks of cobbled Hudson Street. I will never forget the door sucking open and the murmur of male voices inside. The oddity of our foursome standing in the entry way: an African American woman, a semitic woman, and two girl children — all four with uncovered heads. Outsiders. I remember no visible women. Places were made for us and we sat, engulfed in chants more unfamiliar than the drums of Haiti, awash in a language we could not untangle, dying for the mortification to be over.

 

 

IV.

In seventh or eighth grade my sister and I cajoled our mother into attending The Brotherhood Synagogue, a congregation around the corner from my grandmother’s apartment. The synagogue shared a sanctuary with a Christian denomination. I remember little about this experience except that I didn’t fit in, that my mother was restive during the Friday evening services, and that Hebrew School was very difficult. I was a nerdy little whiz student in elementary school, but could not discern the difference between the various Hebrew letters. I couldn’t. I would struggle in front of the other, glib students, but could not recognize more than a letter or two. Years later, this humbling experience gave me some empathy for my students with learning disabilities. My mother declared she would never return to the synagogue after the rabbi gave a sermon on the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. It did not matter one whit to her that Isaac was not actually sacrificed. Her quarrel was with a god who would ask such a sacrifice and with a rabbi and his religion which would perpetuate the story as an exemplary piece of wisdom.

 

 

V.

I went to the hotel room, one of those old and elite hotels on Fifth Avenue near 59th street. I was 17 years old and wearing my heather college admission interview suit and the cheap silk blouse my mother and I had found on a sale table at Macy’s. I had rarely been in a hotel, never by myself. Oberlin was not my first choice, but it was my only out of town choice. I had chosen it because Oberlin was a good school and I liked that it had played a role in the Underground railroad and had, I thought, been the first U.S. college to admit Black students.

When I knocked, the recruiter opened the door. He wore a suit, let’s say a three piece suit. He had pulled the small table-like desk away from the wall and set it in the middle of the room. He motioned for me to sit on one side and he sat facing me. He was tall. I was aware of his starched shirt and, disconcertingly, of the tiled bathroom within arm’s reach.

There must have been chit chat. Maybe I even revealed my admiration for the college’s early integration. Actually, he informed me, Oberlin had not been the first. Polite, I swallowed.

He said, “Miss Holsaert,” and squared off the pages in the folder before him, my papers, my grades, my essay, my application, the references. “Miss Holsaert,” he said, “You are eminently qualified to attend Oberlin, but I must inform you that Oberlin has a Jewish quota and it is unlikely that we will admit you.”

 

 

VI.

1962. Mass meeting in Albany, Georgia. The congregation is passionate and participatory and, of course, Black. I had never heard such solemn, chanted and improvised singing, hundreds of voices flowing inexorably over and under and around one another in deep, harmonious currents. Though it was late September, when NYC would have been cool in the evening, in Albany we were sweaty as well as uplifted.

As we filed out into the warm night, a woman from the congregation asked me, “Where are you from, child?”

I said New York. She asked and so I answered, “Jewish.”

She said, “Oh, you are one of the Hebrew children.”

 

 

WHERE ARE WE IN THE MACHINERY OF THE WORLD?

 

But then:

 

WITH LOVE *

 

you can hear her heart

she and her classmates

hearts under

tank tops and camis

obey their parents

whose history should but

calls them Never Again

to cone nose bombs

 

the children know their job

select their crayons with pointed tips

each girl two pert pig tails brush

sometimes at noon they might whisper

their parents’ terrible stories

their cousin who and the uncle

1940s shadow

 

where do the dead go?

 

the strange one

she is too much or too little Jew

her parents speak to the Arab bookseller

she reads books which are too old

the strange one with resolve

takes up her crayon

those Arab children will have mamas and bubbes

cooking and rousing and berating

 

hear her heart beat

urging her to take her place

but urging her to put down the crayon and walk away

by the bomb, her bomb, that is shaped like a crayon

a piece of her has walked away

and a piece of her has stayed

she writes on the grit metal jacket of her bomb

with the wax of her crayon,

writes her namethe name of the Great Grandma who died at Auschwitz

she signs in manuscript, with love.

 

* having seen a photo of Israeli school children signing missiles to be fired into Lebanon

 

I have been writing about ways I learned who I am, trying to write moments in the moment, without framing. I was hoping this way I would approach questions of race,  gender, and class. These moments must be placed in context: the grid and grids of power within which I exist. An end question is: how can I in the moments of my life affect the force of that grid.

 

 

HOW DO WE KNOW WHO WE ARE?

I.

It was 1949 or so. We were going on a big adventure. We were going to live in Haiti for a year: my mother by birth, my mother by affection, my four year old sister, and I. It was Greenwich Village. Charity was the beloved music teacher at my elementary school. I was six. I had no idea what a big adventure it was. My mother, post-divorce from my father, taking her two little girls on an airplane to live in the West Indies. Two women, taking two little girls. Not a man in sight. A Jewish mother and her Jewish daughters. An African American woman, a music teacher with a degree from Juilliard. In 1949.

My mother took my little sister and me aside.

“Our plane with have to stop in Miami, on the way to Haiti,” she said. We stared back at her. We knew her. We knew there would be more. “Miami is in the south,” she said. We waited.  She said, “In the south, Negroes are treated differently.” We did know about this category and that some people thought it important. Some people had egged our stoop and slashed the hood of our car because of Ethiopia. My sister and I knew about these things. “In Miami,” my mother went on, “when a Negro is walking down the street and a white person comes walking in the opposite direction, the Negro has to step down into the street.”

“Will Charity have to do that?”

“Yes. It’s wrong, but.”

“Couldn’t she just….” we wondered.

“No.”

“And what would we do?”

“We would walk in the street, too,” my mother said.

 

II.

Three of us in a women’s cell on the white side of the jail, Albany, Georgia, 1963.

A white man whose nickname was Mad Dog, was placed in the cell next to ours. “Freedom riding bitches,” he screamed, reaching his hand  through his bars and angling it around and into our cell, so he could grope and grab.

The cop, white as they all were — one of the ones who had groped me when I was booked — came back and grinned. “Mad Dog is crazy. He don’t care about some —“ and he used the white southern expression for white people who don’t hate Black people —“Justice Department. He killed a man. Got off cause he’s mental.”

“Stupid bitches,” Mad Dog screamed, adding the epithet for white people who don’t hate Black people and he shook the bars. “Stupid freedom loving bitches. Oh, God, I hate you.” He vomited, thick and sweet, into the corridor. “Stupid, stupid, stupid bitches.” He shook the bars, his passion rocking the metal partition between him and us.

“I can’t take it,” he sobbed and threw his metal cup of water at the corridor’s single light bulb. It exploded and left us in darkness. I lay down as far from his side of the cell as I could.

Before dawn, to avoid a draft from the corridor, I switched to the bunk on his side. On my belly, I felt him shift on the other side of the wall. I couldn’t feel him breathe, but I could hear his breath catch in the back of his throat before he released it into the dark. He must be a big man, to crush his breath like that before it escaped. I slept,  rocked when he shifted in his sleep.

 

III.

In 1988,  I lived in West Virginia. Through my long-time friend Anne Braden, I’d become involved in the Rainbow Coalition and was doing advance work for Jesse Jackson’s visit to the Kentucky coal fields as a presidential hopeful. I was driving long days from Huntington on the Western edge of WV, crossing over the Ohio river and driving down the eastern edge of Kentucky to the coalfields, with their long, honorable, and bloody labor history. One dawn as I drove south in Kentucky beside a rock face, I passed a deer, running its heart out beside the road. As I kept up with traffic,  it kept up with us, its black eyes bulging. Finally the deer dropped behind.

If you don’t know, I should tell you my friends Carl and Anne Braden had been attacked by HUAC* in the 1950s. The Bradens’ crime was that they, a white couple had, by pre-arrangement with a Black couple who were the Bradens’ friends, bought a house in a new “white” development and sold it to the Wades, the Black couple. Through the anti-Communist lenses of the time, this, obviously , revealed the Bradens alleged Communist sympathies. The 1950s visit to Kentucky by HUAC had been a riotous and hysterical circus. The Bradens, journalists, were fired by the Louisville newspaper, run by the so-called liberal Bingham family. Their name became infamous, particularly among Kentucky white people, and it also became synonymous with political bravery in certain circles.

I spent that day that I had overtaken the running deer at Jesse Jackson’s thrown-together headquarters. At the end of that day, as was often the case, I attended a night meeting in a coal-mining community. People sat in a circle on metal folding chairs, discussing the campaign and Jackson’s upcoming and unprecedented visit to Hazard, KY. At the end of the meeting, as I prepared for the long night drive home, a Black man in his 50s or 60s stopped me. He was heavy set, with the marked hands of a man who worked hard for his living. He wore a plaid wool jacket. We spoke about Rev. Jackson for a few minutes.

As he turned to go, he told me in weighted, low-voiced tones, “I been knowing the Bradens a long time.”

In those words, “I been knowing the Bradens…” I felt the coded message: that he was a man of a particular politics, that the Bradens’ infamy had not scared but had rather drawn him, and, to my flattered though exhausted mind, that he had recognized in me, a forty-something worn out remnant of the Civil Rights Movement, he had recognized that I was one of them, the people who had “.. been knowing the Bradens a long time.”

 

II. WHERE ARE WE IN THE MACHINERY OF THE WORLD?

 

June 2014

On my way into the Harm Free Zone meeting, I pass three young people playing Monopoly.

Inside, on one wall hang charts for Durham in 1937: the green zone where there are no “negroes” and no infiltration by “negroes,” where the white people who live there are prosperous professionals. The yellow and blue zones represent gradations on the way to the Red Zone, where “negroes” lived and whites did not. These are official government documents.

Standing there, looking at the charts, I feel naked. The house where I live with my partner falls squarely in the old Green (all “white”) zone. When house-hunting we had seen a couple of African American people entering and leaving houses on our block; as it turned out they were renters and within a year or two had moved out, laying bare the all-“white” nature of our neighborhood.  If we had waited another year or two, we might have understood better where we were buying. If we had not just used our dollars,  to settle like colonialists into our new territory, if we had learned our new community, we would have done things differently. What should we do differently, going forward?

In the meeting, we watch a film from California Newsreel, Race, the Power of an Illusion.  It describes the U.S. government’s explicit and intentional use of government fiscal policies to maintain segregated and inferior housing for Black people. That the U.S. government and the U.S. banking industry,  through the granting of loans to white people and the withholding of loans to Black people,  were knowingly and intentionally complicit in maintaining racial oppression.

At the end of the film, two audience members joined the Monopoly game in the corridor. Later when they and the players joined us, all five described how, although the two late players were given the same size stake as the original three,  by the time the two late comers joined the game, the early three had bought all the desirable properties. The early three described how, knowing the others would join them, they had conspired to lock out the newcomers. The late two described how they could barely scramble to stay off the properties belonging to the first three and lost their money paying fines.

 

I am the gradual accumulation of my personal identity — race, gender, class — but that exists within the grid of power. The film makes clear and as Michelle Alexander details in The New Jim Crow, how power has been used to willfully oppress and cause harm.

 

I believe a harm free world is possible, but it is only possible if we can force the grid to change.
* HUAC: House UnAmerican Activities Committee,  primary agent of the U.S. government’s McCarthy era red-baiting and fear-mongering

Dear Readers,

For the last two days, I have been swimming at Falls Lake. Sunday, the beach and water were jam-packed and families were cooking meat over fires and cracking open chest-sized coolers to retrieve drinks. In the water there were circles of boys and girls shouting and splashing, whispering pairs of elementary school girls, a solitary girl of eight or nine somersaulting and diving,  teenagers and one older couple embracing and kissing, three men and a young, gurgling  baby (kicking in that happy-baby way) whom they passed back and forth among themselves. The water is warm with icy shocks here and there.

I have been busy, but not blogging.

I am back in the swim of things.

Expect me every week.

 

 

falls lake google

ANN PAYNE lives with two Cairn Terriers and two cats on a steep and wooded hill on the edge of Morgantown WV. She has lived there under those trees for decades. Her house is full of books and odd things she has found outdoors. There is a shaded carp pond, visible from the living room window, through which the carp can be seen, gold gleaming in the dark water. She is visited here by adult children, grand children, friends.

[Ann's words in purple. Faith's in black.]

 

 

faith n ann payne copy Faith S. Holsaert (left), Ann Payne (right)

REFLECTIONS: HOMAGE TO DUNKARD CREEK

A friend who lived on Dunkard Creek called to say there had been a massive fish kill. Ann went to see for herself. Large numbers of green herons, who usually wade into the water to catch live fish, were feeding on the bodies of fish on the ground. There was a hand-made sign: “Who murdered our creek and who will save it?” Muskies and other fish floated dead in the water, The gills of fish were bleeding. Mud puppies which hide in the mud were frantically crawling, with their tiny fingers, trying to get to the air, but they were suffocating and dying. In the end, 90 species of plants and animals which had previously lived in the creek were gone.

Apprenticing in Biomedical Photography years ago, I discovered I am calm – even efficient – in the face of blood and guts.  It isn’t that. But there is something about helpless things suffering through no fault of their own that cuts very deep with me.  What got Reflections:  Homage to Dunkard Creek started wasn’t outrage first, but standing there in the creek and seeing all that suffering, those helpless being plunged into pain, misery, untimely death, and loving them and suffering helplessly with them. That was the heart of it. Then I got angry and frustrated, and then I had to do something.

    ann p rosy faced   Rosy Face Shiner, Sue Wyble

 

ann p crawdads   Crawdads, Jana Matusz

 

ann p toad   Fowler’s Toad, Ann Payne  

 

Dunkard wasn’t so much a protest as a way to introduce people to those amazing beings, their numbers, and how lucky we are to be blessed with such beauty, diversity and wonder.  And then to put it together, to see how awful that these beings were so disrespected, disregarded, and violated. It sounds corny but it’s that deep tenderness that I get to first and want to share.  It precedes the anger and action.  It is from there that I have to act .

Ann talking about the fishkill and the exhibit she curated with work by 90 artists, honoring the 90 species: Reflections: Homage to Dunkard CreeK

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tRJwrsykUGA

A slide show catalogue of the work:

http://www.homage-to-dunkard-creek.com/Homage_to_Dunkard_Creek/Gallery.html

 

MORGANTOWN YEAR OF THE TREE

 ann p big tree

A few years ago some people from Connecticut moved in up the hill and behind Ann’s house. The newcomers wanted a Connecticut sort of lawn. They cut down the numerous old trees which had been giving shade, offering habitat, and holding the soil in place.

 The trees…  Hearing their bodies crash to the ground day after day, the sound of the grinding up of their bodies, the crying of the animals and birds who had dwelt in them – again, suffering for them, with them, helpless. Then I got REALLY MAD and Year of the Tree was born.  YOTT 2013 also featured SHADY:  Our Neighbors the Trees, an exhibit of 27 artists from three states who answered, artistically, the question, “What do you see when you look at a tree?”  Where my ‘neighbor’ (who soon lost her job and retreated to Connecticut) saw only her own ego to which the trees were mere obstacles, pastel artist Susan Poffenbarger sees ancient beauty, Nik Botkin recreates their architectural wonder in giant metal sculptures, etc.  These artists see, love, and respect the trees, and through their work, invite others to do so.  

Morgantown’s Year of the Tree: There were hikes, and lectures, and trips to City Council, and contests, like the one for The Biggest Baddest Tree in Morgantown and a weekend of art: Carol Hummel guided people in yarning a big beauty on the arts campus.

 

 

ann p yarned tree

 

PASSENGER PIGEONS

ann p stuio

 

The Passenger Pigeon Project, of which my friend Ann Rosenthal is one of the organizers, asked one artist from every U.S. state in which those birds had lived to create a piece in honor of the now-extinct bird.  

Passenger Pigeons, distinct from the familiar rock pigeons many call “flying rats,”once existed in such large numbers that when a mass of them passed overhead the sound was deafening and it took hours for the group to pass. Unlike rock pigeons, the Passenger Pigeons were a species native to North America.  A new book about the birds, A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction (Bloomsbury), by  Joel Greenberg is reviewed in a recent New Yorker. Sadly, among other things, these birds who were so numerous they could be called a feathered river across the sky, were not only numerous but delicious. The hunting and eating of them contributed to their extinction

I ended up with (imo a kind of weird) vision, a wounded bird with a mountain-top removal site in the background.  I had to use all kinds of source photos and try to blend them together, but the point is that again – these beautiful creations were disregarded, destroyed, in fact mined, the hills for coal, the birds for meat.  Forever lost.  Then and now.

 

 

ann p c pigeon

url to New Yorker review, which contains a lot of information about Passenger Pigeons:

http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2014/01/06/140106crbo_books_rosen?currentPage=all

 

 

SHH… LISTEN! My current project  with Betsy Jaeger, Steve Lawson and Nik Botkin, is a 20-artist collaboration called Shhh . . . Listen!  an installation to premier at the Allegheny Highlands Climate Conference at Blackwater Falls State Park in early June 2014.  This project highlights 20 regionally common plant and animal species whose populations are dropping rapidly, but who are not yet ‘listed’ as threatened and endangered. The point is to alert the public to common species suffering and vanishing right under our noses (from climate change, habitat destruction, pollution).  In other words, let’s quickly start to pay attention.  We have a pending disaster we can prevent here and now.

Kai Lumumba Barrow

Gallery of the Streets installation. Because of the art, Kai is being evicted. Because of who she is — insurgent, intransigent, irreverent, principled, warrior — her art has become her house, filling every room with a shifting floor of mulch and sand and pebbles, making each doorway a difficult gateway, lowering the ceilings with ropes and wires from which images hang by clothes pins (“I don’t want my art stuck ON THE WALL”), propping books against the walls in stacks, placing books strategically, bringing in pansies (yes) and other growing plants, banners and scrolls of quotations. Even the closets have not escaped.

All quotes are from Kai Barrow, Swan Song Manifesto http://www.organizingupgrade.com/index.php/modules-menu/community-organizing/item/57-kai-barrow

 

1. kai in magnolia

3B. kai lumumba

3A. kai outdoors smile

Picture it: A multiracial, multi-gendered, intergenerational group of about 250 people are marching down the middle of the street in a neighborhood of North Philadelphia. The people are a loud bunch, carrying signs that read “Free Mumia Now!” and “Stop the Execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal.”  Community members come out on their porch to wave at the group or raise a fist in solidarity.  There is a pick-up truck with a loud speaker rigged to a megaphone. People are reciting chants that rhyme and have each phrase and pause dedicated to memory. This performance has become ritualized.

There is a lull.  The speaker/chant leader is tired and needs a break.  He hands the megaphone to me. I am known for my energy. I hold the dubious title of “Cheerleader for the Movement.” Holding the megaphone, I wanted to see if we could transform our ritual. Could we inspire spontaneity and surprise within ourselves and each other? Could we share with this Black, working-class community whose neighborhood we entered, an expansive vision—one where Mumia’s freedom was tied in with their own liberation? I placed the megaphone to my lips and faced the crowd.

 Me: What do we want?

Chanters: Free Mumia!

Me: When do we want it?

Chanters: Now!

[reprise.]

Me: What else do we want?

Chanters: [silence.]

Me: No really. What else do we want? Shout it out. It doesn’t have to rhyme. It doesn’t have to be scripted. Let’s make a cacophony of sound, shouting out our visions of what we want. [pleading] We don’t even have to do it for more than 60 seconds.

Chanters: [silence.]

Actually, there wasn’t complete silence. 

 

 

6. kai I would rediscover

 

5. kai hanging red lavender

 

4. kai waiting room

 

7. kai yellow african

 

 

A culture of resistance, protest politics and institution-building by people of color, feminists, queer people, and poor people in the 1960s and ’70s filled me with pleasure and purpose.  It was a period of design and imagination—a period where people re-envisioned and re-structured their lives. Even as a kid, I knew that things were changing. I saw and felt the electricity of change. Nothing was static.  It seemed to me that everything was in question: from diet to living arrangements; interpersonal relationships to altered identities, from the ways that people asserted and responded to power to a new articulation of labor and production.  During this period, people reached beyond national boundaries and re-defined themselves as members of a global community (and in some cases, interplanetary community—see Sun Ra). And though these shifts were taking place on different scales and at a different pace, corresponding to class, race, gender, age, geographic location and sexual orientation, everyone was influenced by this cultural, social, political and economic re-imagining. This was a transformative moment, one that unleashed our imaginations and spurred our actions. We saw what we could be….

 

 

8. kai asylum surgery

 

9. kai black white alter

 

10. kai alley

11. kai sassafras

 

 

We were unprepared for the brutality of the State. As beautiful as this period was, we were also powerful enough to pose a threat so significant to the functioning of the State, that it systematically set out to squash our burgeoning revolution. Individual leaders were discredited, driven into exile, imprisoned, and murdered. Intra-and inter-organizational conflict resulted in a weakened movement that we are still recovering.  Culture was depoliticized and exploited….

 

 

13. kai wolverine hanging

14. kai jade alter

15. zogi indoors 2

My fifth grade school year was also the time of the 1968 Democratic National Convention. As is the tradition, many young people from throughout the country arrived in Chicago to protest the War and other repressive policies and my family and other residents of the co-op apartment we lived in, agreed to house several of these protestors, among them David Dellinger.  After Mayor Richard J. Daley gave the order for the Chicago Police Department to “shoot first, ask questions later,” my new out of town “friends” arrived back at our house broken, bloodied, and angry at the police, the mayor, and a system that shoots and kills its children.  I was heartbroken to see people in pain and I too became angry. Later that night, I was awakened by gunshots as the police surrounded our apartment and forced Dellinger out of the building. That day I experienced grief, anger and terror—all directly linked to the violence and abuse of power by the State….

 

 

16. zogi outdoors

 

17. kai libertad

18. kai bricktop

19. kai ayanna red

20. kai femm cave quilt

22. kai hoop in tree

21. kai malcolm x

 

This contradiction creates a “raw opposition” that is explosive.  It can change the terms of a space.  As organizers, our challenge is to identify the nature of our raw opposition and build/create within the space between oppression and freedom. We are charged with entering the space of raw opposition with clarity, precision, and analysis, passion, energy, and generosity. In Black tradition, this is known as the “Cool.” Think Miles Davis.

 

23A. kai shirlette

 

23B. kai pam kagele?

 

24. kai erin

 

25. kai erin cath

 

 

 

 

26. kai Jess

 

23C. kai Nia painted

Video trailer by film-maker and organizer Jazz Franklin, a preview of Kai Barrow’s “visual opera,” entitled “Gallery of the Streets,” installed in Durham, NC April 3-6, 2014.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YA0CKj2cncg

 

 

See you next Monday: a month of Mondays with activist artists I know: Kai Lumumba Barrow, Ann Payne, Julia Wallace, Nia Wilson, in alphabetical order, because no ordering of these women is possible.

 

 

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some people think there is such a thing as safety.

respectability          safety           illusion

 

IMG-20111125-00047

 

 

The Mission, San Francisco
To walk these streets is to walk the faultline between wealth and poverty.

I walk Valencia Street from 24th street to 16th. In some blocks I do not recognize where I am from a year ago. Rectangular glass, metal,and concrete buildings have usurped the places where old buildings stood. On Sunday, working through the Brunch Swarm is a piece of work. Stores sell organic cotton clothing, … and old furniture and clothing sold as retro with an ironic wink to hipster insiders. The old places are here, too, some of them. La Cumbre for burritos, Fritz for crepes, New York pizza where you can buy dinner for a couple of bucks, in contrast to the new places with their chrome and glass, their dead-stylish neutral grays and browns, khaki, black. Women in tights, big shiny shoes and skinny jackets race past, pushing their babies in aluminum buggies.

Walk up Mission, one block parallel to Valencia. Start at the 16th Street BART plaza, never empty, always thronging with men and women and children, shopping carts, chihuahuas, chihuahuas in shopping carts, wheelchairs, people reeling with substances, people asking for money, people yelling. Between 16th and 24th, the stores include Thrift Town, holes in the wall selling everything from luggage to skinny skinny jeans; outside some stores stacks of mangos, baby fist red bananas, pads of cactus, sometimes the smell over-ripe, water thrown over the pavement to wash away the night before. Families marshall their children to school or appointments.

It is not that one of these is better, but one is squeezing out the other to make The Mission “safe” for the new settlers. It boils down to the illusion of safety. On one side of the faultline, people can afford to think they can create safe lives behind their gates, that because they can they will buy safety for themselves and their children. On the other side, that illusion would be dangerous: there is no safety.

 

THEY BLAME EVE

They blame Eve who
answered desire,
knew better than god

the fruit of
her loins condemned:

Switch.

Mountain schoolhouse
potatoes and onions in the side lot
children walk out of the hills from hand built houses
some don’t know faucets.

Switch.

Chain link fences off
Cougar Mountain Coal.
Outside in Cougar bottom
eleven trailers shelter brain cancer.

Switch.

I heard a man groped a little girl.

Switch.

The earth movers
throw up dust the color of army.
It chalks over the poplar leaves
and ashes the laundry on the line.
It comes between the sick and tired lovers.
It slinks a cur dog, impounded:
PROPERTY OF COUGAR MOUNTAIN COAL.

[Faith S. Holsaert, appeared in Prairie Wolf Review 10/12]

             

IMG_2060  

FALLING       FAILING

On the occasion of fracturing my lower arm

I fall like clockwork

three or four times a year,

shoulder jolt and palm sting.

I broke a hip;

nearly bit through my tongue

(mouth inflating with blood);

opened a cranial bleed on black ice.

Ma’am are you all right?

I take their hands. I smile and

repeat, I’m okay. Smile. Nice

old falling down woman.

Let me just hold your

hand, I say, trying to reach my feet.

At every step I talk to my feet,

“Up,” and again “Up,” I say.

Place the heel down first

like that tai chi cat

taking her walk while

the next fall waits

in the wings.

IMG_1916

FALLING       FAILING

The slip of my tongue:

Occasionally, I call the man “she” by mistake. Only once or twice a year, but it is awful. It is public. I thought when I understood this mistake caused him pain, I could do nothing but stop, rather than cause pain to someone I care for, someone who is brave, someone in my innermost community.

But then I do it again.

I could say, but he sometimes flicks his hair in that way. I could say, but he wears that feathery boa. I could say…. but in this situation I am not the one to say. he is. The shifting, uneven edge can enlarge, become a terrain. The fluid edge between the monoliths of “male” and “female” an unmapped footpath.

Yes, the feathery boas, draping the throat, their feather air something to breathe instead of things as they are, sometimes pulled up to beautiful blue eyes, stubborn fortress against mistakes.

The fragile, undefined terrain of speaking: two people; what you do not know. What you do not know you do not know. The yawning edge between getting it wrong and wanting to get it right.

IMG_1851

photos: trip to Ireland, 2007

littoral
amphibious
riparian
Chincoteague

I want ocean mist, to ride my bike into ocean mist on the wildlife loop. Because it is morning. I am still a couple of decades from my seventies.I ride alone into this not-water not-air which coats my bare arms. I come from a small rented space where it is just me, the owners’ old furniture, and my writing. When I walk and when I cook and when I bike onto the wildlife loop and when I am falling asleep in the lumpy old bed with the rough bleach-scented sheets, I think about my writing or about some quarrel back home.

On a pine spar, I see what I imagine is a sea hawk, an osprey, but when the weighty-bodied bird with its long head takes flight, by some alchemy, perhaps by silhouette, I realize I am seeing a bald eagle. Don’t know if I actually see or am merely guessing the white head. The bird’s fleet heaviness, its solemnity, the small head and the business-like body: an eagle.

Beside where my bike tires flick over the trail, a young rabbits freezes gelatinous eyes upon my rolling enormity.

I pass the two geese and their young; the gander hisses and holds his threatening, reptile head to the ground beside my tire. When I have seen them feeding in wetland grasses, the geese could be dinosaurs with rounded bodies, long undulating necks and little heads. They are officious community members and vigilant parents, fanatically guarding the fluff ball goslings. They hiss, venomosly.

I ride a trail at the shifting edge between wetland and sand, close to the wavering line between ocean water and land. In the distance, the line between sky and water. And beyond, the things I may never know.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 617 other followers