Archives for category: African American

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.





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.




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.





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.



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.



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.




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.






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.



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.




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.




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.




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.”




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.”





But then:




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.





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.


“And what would we do?”

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



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.



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.”




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

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


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!


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.



not book reports, not scholarly, not comprehensive

but           snapshots

reading walcott 2

3.  the sea’s scales stuttering in the sun

In the pitch black mornings of late December and early January, I fell in love with the bounty of Nobel Laureate poet Derek Walcott.*

Aloud, the complexity of his work –– the fabric of music and sounds, the underlying weave of history, the vermillion and gold strands of emotion –– is almost too much for my 71 year old human voice to carry, my ear to hear, my heart to let in. I am struck dumb by the person who has made these poems. I have listened to him on YouTube, his poetry read aloud in his Caribbean English. I read each of his poems, including the one below, and can parse it for rhyme and slant rhyme, for rhythm, for stand-out words and references,  for music which could be analyzed. But I don’t.

An essay by Pimone Triplett** on the sublime places Walcott’s work in the context of colonialism; how Walcott’s self-aware (and self as a highly educated colonial in the “Western” tradition) post-colonial use of romantic natural images lets us experience the exhaustion of the sublime; his sublime landscape as the object of exploitative newcomers. It is a subtly but vastly different take on colonialism than what I experience as the self-hatred and sourness of V.S. Naipaul.

The first seven poems stand grouped in a section titled “Bounty.” The ancient Greek Argo sails here and Captain Bligh’s “Bounty,” and paradoxically and intentionally, two European figures of poverty outside the bounds of “civilization:” Poor Tom, or Tom o’Bedlam (the persona assumed by Edgar in King Lear, an imposter of poverty and confusion) and John Clare (the son of peasants, a romantic nature poet, who spent the final twenty years of his life in an asylum). These two are imagined present in Walcott’s island landscape. This might be rich enough material, but the structure of this cloth is determined by Walcott’s mother, who has passed. This bounty is a cry of mourning.

I have seen and loved enormous articulate canvases brimming with strokes and pools of color which, if I were to examine a few isolated square inches, would dissolve into meaningless surface. I have seen and loved massive works which, reduced to small parts, resolve themselves into throbbing, exact, beautifully wrought miniatures. These enameled exactitudes laid one beside the other –– integral to a whole which may be harmonious, tangled, or even at war with itself, the small pieces in their individual unity placed beside others which might be expected to complement, but do not; others which might be expected to war against and contradict one another, but which are eerily at peace and “right” beside one another.


Miraculous as when a small cloud of cabbage-whites

circles a bush, the first flakes of the season

spun over Brookline, on Beacon; the afternoon lights

would come on by four, but everyone said, “So soon?”

at the multiplying butterflies, though it was late November,

but also because they had forgotten the miracle,

though the trees were stricken and brief day’s ember

didn’t catch in their firewood; they did not recall

the elation of flakes and butterflies that their element

is a joy quickly forgotten, and thus with the fall

certainly gone, the leaves dimmed, their flares spent

the old metaphor whispered to everyone’s mouth

about age, white hair, the Arctic virginity of death,

that the flakes spun like ashes; but before my heart fled south,

my farewell confirmed by the signature of your breath,

white butterflies circling, settling in your hair, that could soothe

your closed eyelids trembling like cabbage-whites

on my island road, the sea’s scales stuttering in the sun.

(Derek Walcott)

* Derek Walcott, The Bounty, (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1998)

** Tobin and Triplett, Poet’s Work, Poet’s Play (University of Michigan Press, 2008)

not book reports, not scholarly, not comprehensive

but                        snapshots

reading Brand2. Our inheritance in the Diaspora is to live in this inexplicable space

The mornings remained dark longer and longer in October and into December. I was reading Dionne Brand’s Map to the Door of no Return. Some mornings, pronouncing pages upon pages of her words left me dizzy with inhalation and exhalation. Reading aloud, I slowed to ride my own breath to persevere word by surprising word into this amazing book which entirely re-defines the word diaspora. Say the word aloud: the sound of disappearance, loss, finality.

I hadn’t read Map to the Door of no Return before, so I never knew where I would land.  Literally. It could be Trinidad, Brand’s island of Afro-Caribbean birth; it could be Grenada during the 1983 invasion; could be Amsterdam where a Black woman stood displayed in a brothel window; or the teeming city of Toronto where a single mother battled the courts or the welfare system; or it could be the backwoods cabin in a forest wilderness where, always the outsider and always alone –– Brand wrote.

The book is its own self: short essay-memoir-poem texts that defy categorization. Sometimes a longer piece will be separated into shorter numbered sections, creating the surprises and dissonance of juxtaposition. Demarcating these texts are short quotes or musings entitled “Maps.” Here is the first map: The rufous hummingbird travels five thousand miles from summer home to winter home and back. This hummingbird can fit into the palm of a hand. Its body defies the known physics of energy and flight. It knew its way before all known map-makers. It is a bird whose origins and paths are the blood of its small body. It is a bird whose desire to find its way depends on drops of nectar from flowers.

The last “Maps” entry: It is not a question of rootlessness but of the miracle of roots, the miracle of a dialogue with eclipsed selves which appearances may deny us or into which they may lead us (Wilson Harris, quoted).

The book opens with thirteen year old Dionne Brand asking her grandfather, over and over again, where their people come from and his not answering. Out of his not-answer grows a gap. … the rupture this exchange with my grand-father revealed was greater than the need for familial bonds. It was a rupture in history a rupture in the quality of being. It was also a physical rupture, a rupture of geography.

The book ends in Vancouver in the year 2000. Two women of African descent ride a city bus driven by a man from Africa. A Salish woman whose ancestors had lived on the land which became Vancouver gets on the bus. She asks the driver for directions. Brand says, despite the others who might have been on the bus, there were only four people in this drama: the two women of African descent, the African driver, and the Salish woman, as they drove over and along and across ancient Salish pathways which have been obliterated except in peoples’ memories.

The door is a place, real, imaginary and imagined. As islands and dark continents are. It is a place which exists or existed. The door out of which Africans were captured, loaded onto ships heading for the New World. It was the door of a million exits multiplied. It is a door many of us wish never existed. It is a door which makes the word door impossible and dangerous, cunning and disagreeable.

There is the sense in the mind of not being here or there, of no way out or in. As if the door had set up its own reflection. Caught between the two we live in the Diaspora, in the sea in between. Imagining our ancestors stepping through these portals one senses people stepping out into nothing; one senses a surreal space, an inexplicable space. One imagines people so stunned by their circumstances, so heartbroken as to refuse reality. Our inheritance in the Diaspora is to live in this inexplicable space. That space is the measure of our ancestors’ step through the door toward the ship. One is caught in the few feet in between. The frame of the doorway is the only space of true existence.

[Dionne Brand, Map to the Door of No Return]

not book reports, not scholarly, not comprehensive

but                        snapshots



Week day mornings I have been reading aloud to myself. I rise in the dark, eat a quick breakfast and begin: tai chi, the cat sometimes twining through my legs, while water heats for coffee. I go upstairs to my study. I sip my coffee and read aloud.

First, when it was still summer, there was June Jordan’s Soldier, a Poet’s Childhood.

In what fleeting but unimaginably long seconds have I felt my existence, my life breath, at stake? How have I imagined I could defend myself? Where can I find poetry in those seconds so close to death?

Must a poet be fierce? Can I even imagine June Jordan’s ferociousness?

* * * * *

To me, Joe Louis was like the Bible, except Joe Louis was alive.

And fighting was a really good way to live.

There was nothing wrong about it.

Joe Louis made that obvious.
[June Jordan, Soldier, a Poet’s Childhood]

New York City, the ‘40s. Becoming a soldier in preparation for becoming a poet. A musical composition, with the mother and the father as two melodies. She is a toddler, but her father has begun to train her to be a soldier, a little man. Her mother nurtures. JJ as a very young child on the grassy verge outside their projects apartment above the East River; at the same time her father enters her bedroom in the middle of the night to beat her.

Later, two ocean memories are braided: the father takes six year old June deep sea fishing. Preparing the gear, the warnings of danger which could result in the small child’s drowning, the series of 3AM bus rides, boarding the boat with many men. In contrast preparations for a day at the beach, her mother turning and turning in the kitchen as she bakes cake and cupcakes, fries chicken, mixes up potato salad, the beauty of JJ’s mother’s laughter. At the beach, JJ is dashed into the waves by her father, terrified, then rescued by her mother, who carries her back to the umbrella-shaded blanket to feed her cupcakes and chicken and deviled eggs in no particular order and then JJ wanting to be dashed back into the ocean.

At age 7, JJ placed a knife  under her pillow, ready to kill her father if he touched her.

The father, Granville, whacks a grapefruit in half with a machete. Standing, he eats the grapefruit, squeezing the last juice down his throat.

The father announces JJ will attend a prep school and the mother protests that the girl is just a child and that she must be with “Her own people, Granville, her own people.” The prose fragments into poetry, perhaps unable to deal sequentially and logically with the father’s plan to free JJ from what he sees as a cage: “No, Millie, it’s a cage: a cage!” The mother says, “You gwine make her afraid to be sheself!/You gwine make her hate you, Granville…/if you don’ kill her first/with you damn daydreams…”

And he slaps the mother.

And the child says,

No, Mommy. Why?
Yes, Mommy, no.

If you are a child, and your parents, each of whom loves you, are at war about your very nature, about what can mean life or death for you, at war about from what you must be freed: where do you, that child, find your grounding?

June Jordan was not only trained and beaten and sent into a lonely and alien world when she was very young. There were also the near-miraculous moments of safety, love, permission to grow into her own greatness, and awe. Moments when the girl child bursts with exuberance and brilliance:

The first time my father took me to a symphony orchestra concert at Carnegie Hall, it was dark. I was so excited to be up and out of the house at night! I was stunned by so many grown-up people up and outside in the dark. I just couldn’t get over it! Were they all going to the concert? What was about to happen?

And was that was that was that the moon?

Oh, I was so excited! What was going to happen?

My father kept saying, “You’ll see! You’ll see!”

And finally we got there and it was very very crowded and I was afraid I would lose my father but I didn’t and we got to our seats and I couldn’t see anything if I sat down so I stood up and then the concert started and I was looking at all these different men wearing black and white and playing different instruments together and I was about to explode with so many questions because I couldn’t hear the music because the questions crashed around so loud inside my head but my father put his finger to his lips so I’d keep silent and after a while I crawled into his lap and fell asleep.
[June Jordan, Soldier: a Poet’s Childhood]

The words of a child who before sleep placed a knife under her pillow.

MATTHIAS, sometimes in pink hair and hoodie

On the rooftop, who am I

I am the white-hair woman on the rooftop whose face can light up like a firecracker, but who can stay awake past midnight, one, and two in the morning shredding herself down to worrying, worrying about money, about her daughter, about things undone. I work to stay fit, but I am a “girl” of the 50s, who would not be able to do anything except she walked her dog her entire childhood and youth, up and down and across lower Manhattan including the trucking cobbled routes and walked to school or the subway. I have ringing in my ears: is it my past shaking like aluminum foil? Will the tinnitis rise up and block all sound? I love olives. I used to think that loving olives was a mark of my Jewishness despite that Jewishness always seeming ill-informed and fumbling. I have a loved partner of my age. I love our shining youth, our future.

Below, on the ground, in the real place, he is he

If I were on the ground with him, he would be tall, willowy, standing a head above me, but from the roof, he is most prominently head top, hair cut close to the scalp and dyed pink on the crown, no way except literally  covering his awesome brain. His arms hang ungainly long from my perch above, long and sinewy enough to grasp the world, expressive boy hands which can push away. From here, his feet are big, for a world which wants to tumble him. His heart is falling out of his chest, his words of disaster and disgust spew, but he looks toward the sky and the roof. And he smiles.

hair not pink this week

Working on a piece about my friend, Matthias Pressley, but can’t as I stumble over the name Trayvon Martin. Matthias is two years older than Trayvon Martin. In his eyes and in his FaceBook posts, Trayvon Martin looms, huge like Matthias’s eyes.

I listen on YouTube to several mothers and one father of black teenage men murdered by the police: Oscar Grant, Ramarley Graham, Malcolm Ferguson. Ramarley Graham’s mother was summonded to the police station and even there never told, but left to guess when she heard the word “homicide” casually exchanged between two officers, that her son had been killed. Neither she nor her son’s father were accorded any deference though they were grief-stricken and shocked. The testimonies were posted by my friend, and Matthias’s mentor, Nia Wilson of SpiritHouse NC. Her son is a Black High School Senior.

I can say nothing original about this and I guess the point is not originality, but how many of us there are who feel this way. We have always been here, outraged and indignant, but in this age we have an electronic voice outside the commercial venues. That is where many of us have been:  dogging every piece of information related to the case, mired in it, giving the death of a seventeen year old its due in something our culture measures in terms of work not grief: time. For a while I didn’t realize how heavily Treyvon Martin’s murder weighed on me. The heaviness was compounded by the negligent/intentional mishandling in the case on the part of authorities.

I am a child of the Emmett Till generation. I am 69; today Emmett Till would have been in his 70s. So many women in HANDS ON THE FREEDOM PLOW cited the murder of Emmett Till as a critical factor in their development as activists.

Matthias, self portrait

On FaceBook: Matthias Pressley says: Secondly, I very damn well like my MF hoodie. It has a nice spinal cord piece that I might duly note that I added myself. If I want to wear my pimped out black hoodie to the freakin’ corner store or to BEST BUY or to church or to stand at the bus stop or to a gotdamn GALA, guess what? I purchased that shit and I will wear it, it’s mine. Who says hoodies are out? Who says it’s dangerous for people of color to wear hoodie’s just because of racial profiling looney-tunes? Huh!!!????!!!! I would like to kindly state/suggest: “Geraldo Rivera and ALL those alike, SHUT THE FUCK UP.”

Matthias, self portrait

I haven’t written here for several weeks. I plan to continue to write every two weeks, on Wednesdays, from now on. I have to embrace my voice, as in photo below with AfroLez film-maker, activist, Aishah Shahida Simmons (a daughter of SNCC).

Faith n Aisha Shahidah Simmons, Duke University Women's Center

Amina Rachman and I worked as organizers in the early 1960s with the Harlem Brotherhood Group (National Conference of Christians and Jews) and SNCC. In her rich and complex life, Amina was known at birth as Sherron Jackson, Sherron 10X within the Nation of Islam, Amina Abdur Rahman within Islam, and Amina Rachman within the community of Kolot Chaiyenu where she celebrated her Bat Mitzva in her 50s. Amina made the transition in September 2011. With her children Josh and Sabra and others I was fortunate to be by her side when she passed. I was also fortunate to speak at her funeral.

Good Morning.

SNCC the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee is in the house. I bring condolences from:

Mary Britting, New York Office

Gloria Richardson Dandridge, the Eastern Shore of Maryland

Ivanhoe Donaldson, Harlem Brotherhood Group and SNCC at large

Martha Prescod Norman Noonan, Southwest Georgia, Alabama, and Detroit

Penny Patch, Southwest Georgia and Mississippi

Peggy Dammond Preacely, Harlem Brotherhood Group and Southwest Georgia

Carol Rogoff, NY office and Mississippi

Fannie Rushing, Chicago

Kathie Amatniek Sarachild, Mississippi (and NY Redstockings)

Muriel Tillinghast, Mississippi (and NYC labor politics)

Dorothy M. Zellner, Atlanta Office

We offer our condolences to Sabra and Josh, Amina’s sisters, her uncle and her enormous family by affection. Our sister Amina never turned her back on the struggle.

It is significant that Amina had such a beautiful voice, whether she was a teenager singing 50s hits like “Baubles, Bangles, and Beads,” or the adult chanting at her Baat Mitzvah decades later. She was a person to be heard.

There were ugly, haunting truths and entrenched cruelties in our 1950s. These truths flickered across our televisions and filled the newspapers: segregation and racial violence including the murder of Emmet Till, a boy our own age. Inspired by the southern sit-ins, Amina who was then known as Sherron Jackson and I worked with the Harlem Brotherhood Group which was affiliated, tellingly, with the National Conference of Christians and Jews. Amina would become a one-woman conference of Christians and Jews, with two Muslim journeys sandwiched in between.

At that time, Amina and I fell into the habit of calling one another, “Sis.”

The year I went south Amina was a freshman at New York City’s Music and Art Public High School from which I had graduated. She was the first M & A student to wear her hair in an afro. Any time she met a teacher who had also taught me she would say much to that teacher’s consternation, that she – Amina – was Faith Holsaert’s younger sister. She was also moving toward the Nation of Islam and as a teenager presided over the Nation’s meetings at the Audobon Ballroom. In her pragmatic politics and understanding of racist power she was affected when Minister Malcolm X said it was foolish for demonstrators to lay their bodies down nonviolently before earth moving equipment. Amina was one of the people who formed a bridge from SNCC to Minister Malcolm X. She went to Africa with him on his final trip to that continent. On her return she spent a night at my family’s apartment, filled with the hope and danger of those last months of Malcolm X’s life. At dawn she rose and said her prayers on my mother’s rug.

We were out of touch for a while, but in 1974 my mother died. One night in West Virginia I answered my phone. “Sis,” a voice said, “I just heard about your mother,” and we picked up where we had left off, moving into our years of motherhood, our lesbian lives, our adult work. Our love endured five decades, an attachment honored by Amina’s daughter Sabra who was the one to tell me “Ma has had some bad news.” When I walked into Amina’s hospital room a week ago, she broke into that Amina smile. “Sis,” she said, “you came.”

Amina told this story about Chicago SNCC. SNCC workers had underestimated the power of gang turf. There was a confrontation between raw SNCC recruits and a local group. The gang leader opened his razor-sharp switch blade. Softly as an expelled breath he passed the open vertical blade in front of the face of a recruit, cutting the recruit’s eyelashes.

Amina knew danger. Amina knew hardship and she loved people whose lives were hard. She never stopped believing a better world

is possible. She never stopped believing that within the powerful entanglements of race, gender, religion, and class, she would let no one else define her. She was her own woman, lost too soon to the world.

When I was nineteen I knew a woman, a stalwart of the Movement in her southern community. She was summoned to the local Board of Education and warned that if she became involved in the protest marches, she would be fired. In the high school classroom where she taught, she would announce a march into segregated downtown was forming at that moment. She would turn her face to her chalkboard and her back to her students. When she turned around, as she had wished, her students were gone. To the march. To jail.

She came from a family of community minded people. Her father was a minister who preached to those in the alleyways and back streets of their small town, a man who campaigned to register voters before the 1960s and involved his children in the work. Her mother was a teacher, one of that august and learned Black sisterhood who  taught and raised up the children of their South. My friend and her sisters became teachers, some returning to the high school they had attended. When offered a job in the newly integrated high school, my friend preferred to stay and teach the children on her side of town.

The brutality of Movement days caused her such pain. Following the federal trial waged against civil rights activists in her community, my friend could not get out of bed for a year. Then, she arose and into the 70s, 80s, and 90s, despite chronic and severe illness, like many who had been active in the 60s southern struggle, she kept on. She was involved in local Democratic Party politics, city politics, civic endeavors like the establishment of a local Civil Rights Museum.

I had come into her community at 19 and worked there for a year. Following a week in the city jail for one of those marches (above), I became so ill I could barely work. Under segregated medical care, I went undiagnosed. My friend, told me I was moving into her family’s home where I could be cared for. One evening when we were talking in her bedroom, she said there was a man in Florida who wanted to marry her.

I went home. Was diagnosed with hepatitis and confined to bed for a month. Over the next decades, I went on, organizing, marrying, moving to New Mexico where I was when the 1967 Six Day War occurred in the Middle East, had a son in New Mexico and a daughter born in Detroit, moved to West Virginia to follow the mandate that white anti-racists organize in the white community. And came out. More organizing, writing, and by then, like my friend, teaching school. At first when I taught in the public schools, each year I signed a statement affirming that I was not guilty of moral turpitude. That is to say: I was not violating community standards of behavior. I signed, knowing that according to prevailing “community standards” I was lying, because I was living as a queer. Well, in those days about as far as we could imagine and get our tongues around, was to say: lesbian.

Many decades after we had met and worked together, I returned to interview my friend. She introduced me to the younger woman with whom she lived, though I think the standard in her community was for single daughters, no matter how old, to live in the parental home.

On a whim, during the interview I asked, “What happened to that man in Florida?”

She laughed and wrinkled her nose in amusement. “Faith, there was no man in Florida.”

Only later, back home in West Virginia did I dare think: Was she telling me she was like me?

She has since died. Her legend is quite enormous, but it does not mention what we may have shared. For the youth in her community and the broader community, for all of us, there may be more we could learn from her. But it is not a light matter to question a family and a broader community’s portrait of a beloved figure.

No photos this time for obvious reasons.