Episode 10



Storytellers reminisce about prevailing over troubling childhood moments— and look to the next generation of courageous kids.

Guests: Amrita Subramanian, Tim McAleer, Lisa Nelson-Haynes, Kathleen Lafferty, Emi Mahmoud, Jay Butera, Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg, Rachel Chaffin

Image: Johanna Austin

Gen. R(esilient)

Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg’s work at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia centers on building resilience in kids. But how do you teach resilience to a child with a weak support system or traumatic past?

Look For the Helpers

Natural disasters are a devastating part of life worldwide. In the face of catastrophe, who takes the lead to help?

Jamie J: Welcome to Commonspace…I’m your host, Jamie J. Commonspace is a collaboration between First Person Arts and WHYY, to bring you true personal stories that give new insights into the pressing issues of our time.
There’s this photograph that I came across on the internet. It’s of an Ethiopian boy, about five years old. He’s standing in the low-mowed grassy part of a…I guess it’s a yard. The boy is focused on the business of organizing and securing what looks like a bunch of banana leaves he is holding, seemingly not even aware of the photographer. Normal right? Well, a closer look reveals that it’s anything but. You see, I came across this photo after doing a web search for “ghosts”. The photographer believes that’s what she captured in this photo. Because standing next to the boy, like a conjoined twin, is the image of another boy, appearing like a ghostly shadow.
This second boy is translucent, with his frame literally filled in and colored by the grass, dirt, and stones of the yard behind him. Unlike the real boy, who is preoccupied by the things of life he is trying to hold on to, to keep ordered, that ghost of a boy looks straight into the camera, straight at the photographer…at me…as if challenging us all to see him.
That unyielding stare of his insists that I not look away. So today on Commonspace we’re looking back…at the ghost of the child. The child within each of us…the child we hide, silenced. The child we lost…and the resilience required to finally make peace with such ghosts.
And this note…some of the subject matter of this program is best suited for mature audiences.
Jamie J: For Amrita Subramanian, there was a small child within that had been silenced for decades…out of self-perceived necessity…until the night of a First Person Arts story slam, when the theme was “Small But Mighty”…Amrita finally let that child speak…
Amrita Subramanian: So I'm born in the country called India. Some of you might be familiar with it. They have a singular tradition that takes you from Homo Erectus to drooling primate. It is called touching the feet. And you touch a feet to show respect. You touch a feet of an elder to gain blessings. Now most of the time, I imagine my friends are imaginary. It gives me courage. In fact in this moment I'm thinking all of you are imaginary, and I'm standing here alone talking to myself, which is very normal. Because I have every instinct in my body, which is saying ­ chicken out of the story. So you're going to travel with me ­ because I dare not do it alone.
You're going to travel with me 33 years ago when on a very dark night ­ it was the darkest night of my life ­ and it was the Festival Of Lights, Diwali. When we celebrate Festival Of Light, you go trick or treating, yes? So come with me. My mom and me ­ 4 year old - so this is my mom: “Hello, good evening! Happy Diwali! Happy Diwali! Amrita, you are going to house to house and give sweets to everyone. You have to touch their feet.” “Um... No.” “No Amrita, you can't say no. It's all uncles and aunties.” “Um...uncles? Are they fa­fa­fa-family?”“No, no...’Rita, in India every Tom, Dick, and Harry is your uncle. We’re very populated we're all related.” “Um...uhhh no.” “Amrita, you are small. You can't say no all the time, okay? Oh, look! There is Uncle Harry and Uncle Dick ­ go touch feet.” “Uh...no.” “Rita…Amrita, they love you! Every time they come home they play with you ­ all the time!”“Th­th­that's why mom, they hurt me when you're not looking ­ when you're in the kitchen.” “What? What are you saying? Before all the people you are going to bring shame ­ to the family? Go touch feet!” “No...No...No!”(slap sound) “Ah!! Mom!” “Go touch feet! You are small, stay small.” (Breathing heavily) And I run, and I run, and I run, far away. And I run. And I’m hoping somewhere there is someplace to hide. And I find this hole in a garden, and I sit there quietly just hoping that nobody finds me. And just hoping that I just die here ­ because ­ because I’m so small. And I stay there for a very, very long time. It was a very dark night. And then I see a tick in the soil climbing over everything. And I think I'm stronger than that. And very slowly ­ very slowly ­ I start coming out of my hole, and I step out. You have to wonder why I'm telling this story because it's so…easy to go back to that hole ­ like this ­ I'm in the hole. But how many nights will I die for that one night that I didn't die? I am choosing to step out of that darkness I am choosing my life. In psychology, that's called positive illusion. A child lies to protect from complete shut down because of fear and debilitating pain. In your silent acceptance of the absolutely flawed life I have ­ and my story…I release that ­ my heart is throbbing insanely and it says thank you.
Jamie J: Amrita Subramanian is a business consultant and executive coach. She says she’s grateful to have found a safe place to share her stories to kind audiences - and that means you.
Jamie J: You know, I think we all hold certain things within…for what we think are good reasons…that can become a darkness there. According to DoSomething.org, 1 out of 3 girls, and 1 out of 5 boys will be sexually abused before they reach age 18. 90% of child sexual abuse victims know the perpetrator in some way. 68% are abused by a family member. But storytelling - true, personal storytelling - has the power to draw out of the darkness. When we break the silence, like Amrita, letting the truth come out can be a release…and a first toward resilience.

Jamie J: Our next storyteller is Timmy Mack. Now, tmyhe person Tim needed to speak to was often right there but he couldn’t the words to confront him. Then…something changed everything…

Timmy Mack: I have an old school Irish father. And what that means is that he takes all of his emotions and he buries them as deep down as you possibly can. Anytime I’ll call, he always answers the phone the same way ­ “Your mother is not here.” And he does that now that we have a good relationship ­ we didn't always. There was a day that I'll never forget ­ where our relationship took a turn ­ ‘cause it had to hit bottom before it could build up. I just finished a glass of milk, and my mom was really angry ‘cause she didn't have any for her coffee. And she's screaming at me over it and I wanted to explain to her that we didn't live in the countryside, and by the time her coffee is done brewing ­ I would be to the store and back with an entire cow for her. But logic tended to escape her when she would get upset like that, and so decided I would go grab my wallet and get to the store as quick as I could. And when I got to the top of the steps, my dad stopped and looked up from his paper and he spoke to me for the first time in what felt like years. And he said I can't wait until you get the f***out of here. And so clearly, I had outworn my welcome. And I told him you know what ­ I'm going to leave and then you and I, we don't have to pretend to have a relationship anymore. And I made my way downstairs and I started to pack my stuff because I just wanted to get out of there. And that's when I heard these footsteps ­ and they were slow, and they were heavy, and they had a purpose. And when my dad hit the bottom step, our eyes locked. And he made a beeline right towards me. Now, if I had been a kid, that beeline would have came with a fist cocked, because he would have beat the s*** out of me. But I'm an adult now, and he can't put his hands on me. But he stopped right here ­ and I knew he was mad ­ because his face was red and there was spit curling up in the corners of his mouth and he said: “I don't need to pretend I have a relationship with you ‘cause you’re a f****** loser! You hear me?!”And I mean, he was right here, so I heard him. I knew exactly what he said. But he decided he needed to repeat it. And as he did, he took his huge sausage fingers and he drove them into my chest ­ like he was trying to bury the words into me. “You're a f****** loser!” And he said: “You quit at everything you do ‘cause you have no f****** heart. You hear me!?”And I’m like, “Dad, yeah sure, you're right next to me.” But I knew he was going to repeat it again. But this time, he beat his own chest to emphasize the words ­ “No f****** heart” and then he turned and he left. And I finished packing, and I got to the front door, and I turned around, and I looked at my dad ­ sitting there reading the paper ­ and I wanted to tell him how it was his fault. It was his fault that I didn't know how to fight back. It was his fault that I didn't have any heart, because when you're a little kid and you're getting the s*** kicked out of you by someone who is 6”6’ 260 lb, you don't learn how to fight back ­ you learn how to duck and cover and wait for the s*** to stop. And that's how I live my life, I’m waiting for the s*** to stop. I wanted to tell him all that, but the only words that came out of were ­ “I love you, dad” and he never looked up from his paper. My wife and I are expecting our first child, November 1st and we're having a baby boy. And I think a lot ­ thank you ­ I think a lot about the first time I get to hear him say “I love you, dad” and if being an old school father means you have to hide your emotions, I'm really glad that I'm new school because I can't wait to say it back.
Jamie J: I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Timmy Mack’s beautiful wife…and when baby McAleer gets here…I know they’re gonna be great parents….and they’ll have a new story to share.

Jamie j: Now, I’ve also had the pleasure of knowing our next storyteller, Lisa Nelson Haynes. Lisa shares her story of experiencing injustice and discrimination as a 6th grader…and she and her mother decided not to take it sitting down.
Lisa Nelson Haynes: It’s 1977. I know for some of y'all that's a long time back, but anyway, 1977. All right? I had just transferred from Evans Elementary, which was very diverse, to Saint Louis Catholic School in Yeadon, Delaware County. I was now one of 4 black students in the entire school from kindergarten to the 8th grade. I'm in Sister Stevens’ class in sixth grade ­ all right? One day I get off the school bus, go to the intersection to cross, and the safety crossing guard says, “Hey Kizzy, you can cross the street now!” And I was like ­ he couldn't be talking to me ­ “Kizzy?” And I looked around, he was staring right at me. And I was the only black person standing at the corner, and all these white kids and they just all walk across the street like, what's the problem? And I'm like, Kizzy? Now for those of you that don't know, Kizzy was the daughter of Kunta Kinte. She was a slave on the miniseries Roots. So this cat was calling me out by name ­ alright ­ and I looked at him and I was like, “My name is Lisa, not Kizzy.” And he's like “Whatever Kizzy, cross the street.” Alright ­ I crossed the street. Later on that afternoon when I got home, I told my mom all about it. “Can you believe this cat was calling me Kizzy? Calling me a slave?” And she's like ­ “What?” She told my dad when we got home ­ when he got home ­ and they decided that they were going to write a note to Sister Stevens and clear this up. Ask her to stop this guy from calling me Kizzy. Next day ­ get off the school bus, go to the intersection. Same thing. “Kizzy, c’mon Kizzy, Kizzy! You, you, you! Come on, cross the street!” And I was like, boy I'm going to knock you out ­ right so I walk across the street, but I kind of look at him ­ like ­ I got something for you in my bag, you just wait. Sister Stevens going to get with you. I get to the classroom, hand Sister Stevens my note ­ right ­ go to my desk, start unpacking. Couple of minutes later, Sister Stevens comes over and she says, “Nelson, what's the problem here?” I was like, “It's just like my mom said, that boy is calling me Kizzy... Kizzy is a slave.” She's like ­ “I know who Kizzy is...Kizzy is on roots! Played by that lovely colored actress…Leslie Uggams! She's my favorite colored actress! I don't know what the problem is. I love me some Leslie Uggams!” And I sat there like, oh lord, this was not going the way that I planned right? Alright…I get home, my mom said ­ “How'd it go?” I said ­ “Mom, she told me that Leslie Uggams was her favorite colored actress!” My mom's like, “What?” She said, “Did she speak to that boy?” I said ­ “No, no.” So my mom wrote another note, and she said “Do you know what? I'm going in there and I'm going to talk to her directly...her and the principal.” Couple of days later, my mother marches in there with me…beginning of school, waits for the principal and Sister Stevens to comedown ­ right? A few pleasantries go by ­ next thing you know, the principal says Mrs. Nelson, what's the problem? How can I help you? My mom said, “Listen, I did not send my daughter here to be verbally abused and be called Kizzy, a slave from Roots.” The principal said ­ “You're right. I'm so sorry. We’ll take care of this right away. Lisa, next time you have a problem, please come seem me right away.” Sister Stevens on the other hand ­ she wasn't ready to let this go. “You know, Mrs. Nelson... I don't see what the problem is. Kizzy is my favorite colored actress! I remember the first time I saw her on the Ed Sullivan show. In fact, she kind of reminds me of Lisa. Lisa is my favorite colored student!” My mom was like, “What, whoa...wait a minute now! First of all, Lisa is your only colored student here at Saint Louis. And we ain't colored no more…we black. We're black now, let's go with black. And if you don't take care of this right away ­ I mean right now ­ okay? I will sue you. We will have our own little March on Washington around Saint Louis ­ okay? And it will not be pleasant.” So... Sister Stevens, she understood that. I wasn't called Kizzy no more. I was called some other things during my time at Saint Louis, but not Kizzy. Thank you.
Jamie J: Lisa Nelson Haynes is the Executive Director of Philadelphia Young Playwrights.
Jamie J: You know, I don’t normally talk about my own childhood ghosts…but… the little girl in me…is remembering her uncle out on the front porch, fighting the demons of his youth. He’s long gone now, and he’ll never be back. But what happens when they’re gone, and you still have something to say? Like...”I wish things had been better for you.” But the space between us is forever…I wrote these words to fill that space.

Jamie J: He let loose story shards the nights I stumble upon him alone on the porch. Glassy-eyed, tattered old high-school yearbook open in his lap, thinning newspaper articles about a running, jumping, boy wonder, dangling loosely. He passes his fingers over them like they are love. A father in the lamplight - not mine, but the only one that stayed. It always starts, he and the night, out there alone, him rocking back and forth to a sound I strain for, but that escapes me. He spots me watching from the doorjamb. I shrink back but his eyes call softly, softly, saying please, lulling me to kneel at his feet. Two of us together thumb through the pages, fingering the lifelines. In this photo, he’s the lone colored boy, boring his heels in the ground at the chalk line, surrounded on either side by white runners, yet staring on, cocksure. On the next page, arms outstretched, he’s straddling the air and scaling hurdles. Here, he’s way ahead of the rest, almost out of their sight. Under the newspaper headline, “Record Breaker” is a photo of his thrust chest, breaking the tape first. I believe I see a church off in the distance in that one. His sway sound, I can hear it too now, it’s church bells ringing! Ringing, ringing for him, calling to everyone, saying his name. The bells crescendo and he’s hearing them, and I’m hearing them, and we’re dancing, just the two of us. Then the bells - the ringing, clanging, majestic bells - slow. In another photo, a runner alone…takes a sip from the “colored-only” fountain, while his white teammates sip cool water from a shiny trophy passed among them. By the turn of the last page, the bells have gone cold, he’s back on the porch, un-rung, me staring up at him. Storm clouds come to his voice “I was the fastest one of all.” He squeezes, squeezes my tiny wrist…I hum with pain, he flings my hand off the page, snaps the book closed, buries it in his chest, and says “Mine!!” When his over-face crumbles, I see the demon, and run into the closed eyes of the house, but know it is hopeless - after all, he is the record breaker. Each time his eyes said “Please!” I came to him out there on the porch. Would have knelt at his feet a thousand times more just to be with him in his brightness, if only for a moment. I’ve lived long enough to have silence come to me out there on the porch, heavy with the past, yearned for the sound that shatters it, know the sober vacancy that remains after the flickering, dimming bells have gone. How penetrable humanity, when promise is a thief in the night.

Jamie J: You’re listening to Commonspace…a collaboration between First Person Arts and WHYY…and it’s been supported by the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage. Please subscribe to our podcast at iTunes and Stitcher. I’m your host Jamie J.
Jamie J: Our next storyteller is Jay Butera. Jay had what he calls a primal dream from childhood…but his primal dream also contained a primal fear. In order to get past his fear, he would have to come face to face with the beast of those dreams. Here’s Jay…
Jay Butera: ”All of my life I have wanted to sleep alone in the woods at night. This has been a dream of mine and there's one little thing coming between me and this dream all of my life. I am scared of bears. I mean, I'm really scared of bears. All of my nightmares have always involved bears in the woods. When I was a kid, in the closet, I had to sleep with a light on in the closet because I knew there were bears in there, just waiting for darkness to get me. But I didn't want to give up on this dream, this primal dream of sleeping in the forest at night. So I read a quote a few years ago, and it said, “The only way out is through.” And that told me the only way to deal with this fear of bears ­ that was keeping me from this dream ­ would be to face a bear. Head on, stare him down. Now there's a trail in northern New Jersey that is infamous among hikers for bear sightings. It's one to avoid ­ but I decided I’m going to go to that trail ­ and I’m going to hike until I find a bear. I'm not proud of this decision, ‘cause in retrospect it seems really foolish. But, it tells you something about the state of my mind. I wanted to get past this so I could move on with my life. I went to the trail, parked my car at the trailhead, and started to hike. Somewhere into this hike, I come across some hikers that were coming from the other direction. They said to me “There's...there's bear cubs ahead...there's bear cubs ahead!” And I knew what they were saying; they were saying turn around now! Run! Save yourself! But I said, this is great! Bear cubs! You know, they're little guys and they're cute. And it would be a great way to get to know bears. You know, without the fear of this thing and so, I walk on and I walk and I’m not seeing the bear cubs. And it starts to get kind of late in the afternoon, and I’m worried about getting back to my car before nightfall, because you know I’m not going to sleep in the woods at this point. And I turned around and I’m still on the hot DEFCON 5 for these bears. And when you're afraid of bears, everything looks like a bear. Tree stumps, boulders, rocks... Everything looks like a bear. And I came around the bend, and there were the real things! There were three little bear cubs. Man, they were cute. They were beautiful, and I’m thinking I can do this. I can meet these bears, I can stare them down. But…but I forgot one thing where you have bear cubs; you’re probably going to have a mother bear. And if there's one thing I knew about bears, it's that you don't want to meet a mother bear with bear cubs. I read all the books about it, and you know that they're the ones that are on edge and really protective ­ and they're the ones that are going to get you. So I don't know what I’m going to do, because there's the mother bear cub ahead, there's my car somewhere down there, it's getting dark back there, and there's a mother bear cub who's looking pretty angry. I don't know what I’m going to do. I freeze, and at that moment, behind me comes another hiker. Which seemed wild because there had been no one behind me on the trail the whole day. And this guy appears out of nowhere. I later learned he was a yoga master from India. And I say “Stop…bears! Bears!” And he says, “It’s ok, if we walk with peace in our hearts she won’t hurt us.” And I said “Really?” And he said ­ “Yes.” He said, “Do you understand what I’m telling you?” I said, “Yes!” He said, “Can you walk with peace in your heart?” I said, “Yes! ”And I don't know why I said yes, but I did. And I started to breathe, and I tried to breathe peace and calmness into my heart, into this pounding heart…and we walked on. We walked toward the bears, and when we got right aside, as close as we would be on that trail to the mother bear, we both stopped for some reason. And I looked over, and she was looking at me in the eyes. That's the other thing I remember from the books about bears, you don't want one looking you in the eye ­ that's a real aggressive sign. And I said ­ “OK, peace in my heart.” And I breathed and I tried to smile and think what would this yogi behind me do? And…And here we are, and the bear put her head down toward the ground and I’m trying to remember from the books what does that mean in bear language? But I hear this snuffling, I could hear her breathing and I hear the snuffling in the ground, she started to forage again she went back to eating. She was standing down and she had sensed that we meant no harm…and so we walked on. And with this peace in our heart, we walked forward and we got past…way past the bears and I turned around and I grabbed this yogi ­ this mysterious bear whisperer from India ­ and I said, “How do you know bears like this? How did you know what to do?” He said ­ “I’ve never seen a bear in my life... That was amazing! ”And I had trusted my life to this man's intuition, but I’m glad I did. It saved us both. And to this day I think back and wonder why I trusted him? And I just kind of think, you know, you have to, you have to believe in things however little they are. You have to believe in something. You have to have some faith in order to walk on in this world. Thank you very much.
Jamie J: Jay Butera is an entrepreneur, writer and speaker living near Philadelphia, who works as an advocate for non-partisan clean energy and climate change solutions.
News montage: Harvey Weinstein’s star is falling fast, now more than 40 women, including some of the world’s most famous stars, are accusing the disgraced Hollywood mogul of sexual misconduct or worse. Bill Cosby, actor and comedian, has been accused of rape and sexual assault, including drugging them with alcohol combined with pills, by multiple women. Several women speaking out, accusing Donald Trump of touching them inappropriately.
Jamie J: Harvey Weinstein…Bill Cosby…even our president -- and so many others, -- accused or guilty – we will never know about. Workplace harassment has been all over the headlines, with no end in sight….storyteller Kathleen Lafferty had a career she loved for ten years. Then it ended…badly for her. But what happens when your kid wants the career you had…that was taken from you? Kathleen Lafferty finds a way to move forward through the hopes and dreams of her child.
Kathleen Lafferty ­ “Hi it's me, Kathleen. I have a five-year-old kid and he's awesome, and he wants to be a firefighter when he grows up. And I'm not talking about the fleeting kindergarten career day type of want­to­be a firefighter thing. This isn't just Halloween, it's not just dress up day, it's not just Purim, it’s everyday. This kid has a full set of turnout gear on the ready at all times in our house. And he's pretty serious about it and, uh, I don't know that it's going to go away. I feel it's probably my fault a little bit. I was a firefighter for 10 years. By the time he was ­ thank you ­ by the time my son was born I was out of the job for about a decade. And I don't know if it would have even ever come up if it weren't for the fact that he was so very attracted to the shiny big red trucks. So I started talking to him about it, and I started telling him what the trucks were for, and all the different things that they did. And I was surprised how much I remembered. Be sure you always run with the irons, pair the Halligan bar with the flat head axe. And last fall, we went to two or three million fire prevention open houses, him in every bit of that full turnout gear. He has two different kinds. I got back with some old smells, familiar smells ­ diesel engines, hydraulic tools, sooty fire gear ­ I hadn't smelled those things in a long time. It kind of brought me back mentally. It was a little hard. I have post­traumatic stress disorder, and it's not from being a 17 year old ­ I started when I was16 ­ it’s not from being a 17 years old kid loading people in the helicopters, climbing into crumbled up cars, or watching an entire family being pulled out of their house and trying to save people of all different shapes and sizes. That's part of the job. That's what I signed up for. I felt like I could do something and being a firefighter ­ to me ­ meant being empowered and meant being having the gear, and the tools, and the team to get a job done and to be able to make a difference. And my son has a big heart. I think he gets that some part of him ­ he's a smart kid ­ so I’ve PTSD because I was the girl in the locker room. When those trucks came back in the station, and we put the gear away, my workspace wasn't the same for me as it was for my male peers. My one boss, he openly said women have no place in the fire service, and my other boss, when I was still a junior trainee, shut the door behind me and he ­ I thought it was a mentoring session – he proceeded to show me his penis. And I actually held in there ­ strong ­ I was determined, I was doing a job I believed in, and I really loved it ­ especially when duty called.
But one day, I think the day my spirit finally broke ­ even though I hung in there for a few years after this ­ was when I walked in and I found out that my bunk had been tampered with ­ obscenely. I talked to my boss, he said, “We don't assign bunks anyway, sleep somewhere else.” And how do you know what that supposed to be anyway? Well boss, all the guys have been joking around about “spunk in the bunk” for the last half­hour for one thing…but aside from that, I’ve been here for 7 years and I’ve heard it all and seen it all. So, my wish is for my son to pursue his dream if he wants to be a firefighter. I want him to be a firefighter. I want him to know the bravery, and the skill, and the teamwork, and the determination, and even the fears that come with being the person who rides that shiny red truck while it’s humming and you’re donning gear and it's screaming and you're putting on a pack and you know that you can go in and that day ­ when you go into work ­ you might save a life. I want him to be able to do that, and I want him to be able to come home at the end of everyday. Of course as a mother, the number one thing is for him to come home healthy in one piece, safe ­ physically and mentally and then morally. I was on the job for 10 years. When the guys talk about grabbing someone's pussy, it's never just talk ­ they do it. The guys who don't do it ­ they learn to keep their mouths shut, because it's still considered a rite of passage and a mark of manhood to objectify and sexually assault women. We still reward predators. If you don't believe that, I don't know what much more proof you need then to be in our country right now. But, I believe things can change. And when my boy, one day ­ if that day comes ­ and he continues to want to do this job, I want to be able to see him do it. And be able to do it without subscribing to a toxic culture that challenges the good person I know he is on the inside. No guy should ever have to choke down the baggage that comes with working in a toxic, sexist culture ­ but hey ­ I still believe in miracles. I believe in a lot of miracles and I think we can make a difference, and my son is in the first generation that's going to do it. I think we're all going to do it, and I think there's going to be a lot of important conversations. Thanks a lot for listening. Love, Kathleen.
Jamie J: Kathleen Lafferty is a writer, storyteller, and a mom. She is currently working on a memoir about how being an American woman working in a “man’s job” can lead to some pretty dark places.

Jamie J: You’re listening to Commonspace…a collaboration between First Person Arts and WHYY…and it’s been supported by the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage. Please subscribe to our podcast at iTunes and Stitcher…and while you’re listening, give us a rating! I’m your host Jamie J.
Jamie J: You know, Resilience over pain past or present, is something I think we have to fight for… but what if the thing you have to be resilient about is an immovable thing? Emi Mahmoud is the 2015 Individual World Poetry Slam Champion. She’s also a poet and activist born in Darfur, Sudan. Emi attended Masterman High School, right here in Philadelphia, before going on to Yale University. She has been an activist advocating for attention to the continuing violence in Darfur. In 2016, she was invited to a roundtable with President Obama, when he visited the Islamic Society of Baltimore. Emi shared her stories and poetry with us at a Commonspace live event.
Emi Mahmoud: Memories of my childhood live between the rings of sand around my ankles in the desert heat in my lungs. I still believe that nothing washes worry from tired skin better than The Nile and my grandma's hands. Every day I go to school with the weight of dead neighbors on my shoulders. The first time I saw bomb smoke it didn't wind and billow like the heat from the kitchen hearth but it forced itself on the Darfur sky, smothering the sun with tears that it stole from our bodies. The worst thing about genocide isn't the hunger, the murder, the politics; it's the silence. For three months they closed the schools down because people like us are an eyesore. So the first month, we took it. The second, we waited. And the third month, we met underneath the date palm trees, drinking up every second our teachers gave us, turning fruit pits into fractions. On the last day, they came with the message ­ "Put them in their place." We didn't stand a chance 'cause flesh was never meant to dance with silver bullets so we prayed for the sun to come and melt daggers from our backs. I hid underneath the bed that day with four other people. Twelve years later and I can't help but wonder where my cousins hid when the soldiers torched the houses. To the bodies in the wells to the weapons that didn't get you, the poison would and sometimes they didn't want to use bullets, 'cause it would cost them more than we did. What does it matter? I've seen sixteen ways to stop a heart. When you build nations on someone's bones, what sense does make to break them? And one day my mother choked on rifle smoke, my father washed the blood from his face. My uncles carried half the bodies to the hospital, and the rest to the grave and we watched. For every funeral we planned, there were sixty we couldn't. Half the sand in the Sahara tastes a lot like powdered bone and when the soldiers came, our blood on their ankles…I remember their laces. Scarlet footprints on the floor. Our parents came home with broken collar bones and the taste of fear carved into their skin and it was impossible to believe in anything. Fear is the coldest thing in the desert and it burns you. Bows you down to half your height and owns you and no one hears you, 'cause what could grow in the desert anyway?
Jamie J: The war in Darfur began in 2003 when rebel groups began fighting the government of Sudan, which they accused of oppressing Darfur's non-Arab population. The government responded to attacks by carrying out a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Darfur's non-Arabs. This resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians and the indictment of Sudan's president for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court.
Emi Mahmoud: I saw a boy make his final stand today, face down in a bed of sand. Body prone, bent, broken like the waves. His chest was not moving, his heart did not beat…everything around him was suspended, and the varied turmoil of land and water pushed and pulled as if each were trying to reclaim him. It is like that sometimes when I see the corpse of a stranger. That kind of death from the outside of someone else's final breath…it makes the air stop, the ocean turn more slowly, the land a cradle, a cemetery, a monument, a stone…like a dead boy resting in the sand.
Jamie J: The UN estimates as many as 300,000 people have been killed in the Darfur genocide. But the Sudanese government says that the death toll has been grossly inflated. Nevertheless, every day the Sudanese fear for the wellbeing of their loved ones. Here’s Emi’s story about another boy…her brother.
Emi Mahmoud: Muhammad had a gorgeous mind. He captured of the speed of light in the palm of his hands, and learned how to bend time. At less than a meter tall ­ he was a human race car, zipping through the entire sections of the Sahara in a matter of moments. Little boys are incredibly aerodynamic. Once they start running no one can catch them. Muhammad started running before he knew what he was running from. One day I was taking a nap in the warzone when my mom came and woke me and said, “Your brother just ran outside looking for you. I tried to find him but he was too fast.” The first thing I thought is this is a problem, because in the first 48 hours after a child disappears, the chances of finding them alive decrease by 50%. And in a war zone that number drops significantly. Our town was full of mercenaries, merchants, army vehicles, everything you could possibly imagine. So when I got to the final house and I couldn't find my brother, my mind went numb. The first hour past ­ and everyone was looking for him. The second hour ­ and the heat alone was unbearable. By the third hour ­ the combinations and permutations of everywhere he could possibly be were endless. Imagine trying to psychoanalyze a three­year­old when every possibility is staring you in the face. There are warplanes overhead, curfew is approaching and everyone has that look in their eyes like they're imagining every child that died the exact same way. Every bomb, or bullet, or person that took them. There's this four-lane road that separates my township from the next. And each day ­ aid vehicles, army trucks, all kind of traffic ­ goes through there. Before I move on, I want to address this feeling that I always get when I talk about this…this feeling that we all have especially if you're a parent, or a sister, or if you’ve ever loved a three year old. When I was looking for him, I thought I was feeling his fear. Is he hungry? Tired? Is someone hurting him? My family was lucky because for us that feeling ended. For a lot of families it never ends. When I crossed that road and found my brother alive, I'll never forget what he said. “Emi, I found you! I was looking everywhere for you!” I didn't know whether to yell, or cry, or laugh. I just held him. It's life in the midst of war and conflict. You get these moments of clarity where everything just seems so far away. But every time I think of my brother and what he was willing to do to find me, I think of all the kids we don't find and the ones we find too late.
Jamie J: Before moving to Philadelphia, Emi’s family lived in Fort Wayne, Indiana. In February of 2016, three young Sudanese refugees were murdered “execution style” there. Two of the young men killed were Emi’s cousins. After surviving genocide in Darfur, only to lose their lives to such violence right here in the US was an unimaginable nightmare for Emi. The deaths of the three men, two of whom were Muslim, sparked outrage among many Muslims and non-Muslims alike. They were infuriated by the lack of mainstream news coverage. A nineteen-year-old was found guilty of the killings, which were apparently committed in a robbery gone bad.
Emi Mahmoud: I walk into the morgue. The mortician presents my country splayed across a table. Asks me to identify the body. I do not recognize it, it’s emaciated form dimmed by a death I did not prepare for. I did not expect losing my culture to feel like this. This cadaver I dared to call an identity once held the belief that I could hold home on the tip of my tongue, and the breadth of my appetite in the weight of my memories. I only recognize my country in photographs in tour books, in sepia, not in living color not in this state of surrender. My stomach failed me, first gripping down on processed food. The bite of bile on my disobedient tongue, my ears followed, forgetting the timbre of my grandfather's voice. A swift, harsh of wind over desert sand, my accent as they force­fed me this borrowed language. There's something about the taste of assimilation that makes you want to get back in the boat. I think of home each time the bank asks me if I want to go paperless. Don't they know that people of color have been doing that since before Plymouth Rock? Since Underground Railroad? Since my uncles turning my house into a refugee camp? Don't they know red, white, and blue? Like stand your ground, like hate crimes, like shoot to kill? Only stars I see are when the cops roll in to take my neighborhood. A family undocumented… only stripes I see chain us to this prison of an existence. I find myself talking to people across borders more each day. I find myself crying for their countries too. This massacre, this wilted flower field of gutted nations…less melting pot, more guillotine…more disemboweled American dream. If you hate it so much then why are you here? Because sometimes the buildings collapse but the rubble keeps bleeding. Because sometimes your blood is the only thing you can carry with you. Because sometimes the water is more inviting than where you stand…and that's how you end up with little kids washed up on foreign soil. And I’m not just talking about the ones that make it. Do you know what it's like to escape genocide only to be gunned down in your own home? Don't they know that they're just finishing the work that our dictators started? Ever since they handed me the death certificate…no ­ the certificate of naturalization - I’ve been seeing ghosts, mostly in the mirror, at the dinner table, at the family picnic…we are naive enough to believe that we could hold home in here without anyone having to leave. I met the president ­ sat with him at a table too small to hold all the things that brought us there. His hands resting…where are your chains? They told me your hands were tied when they sent those kids back, when they wouldn't take the refugees. Will they close down the borders but not Guantanamo? Mr. President why do they call it the land of the free when even the dead can't leave? Mr. President what does one caged bird say to another? I couldn't hear him over the sound of the corpse lying between us. He looked at me as if he thought I were afraid. Doesn't he know that back home the women take care of the bodies? Thank you.
Jamie J: So if we fight not to win, but because there is something worth fighting for, what’s the reward of resilience? Maya Angelou was an American poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist. She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, several books of poetry, and was credited with a list of plays, movies, and television shows spanning over 50 years. She had her own thoughts about resilience…
Maya Angelou: Everyone in the world goes to bed one night or another with fear or pain or loss or disappointment…and yet each of us has awakened…arisen…somehow made our ablution, seen other human beings, and saying morning how are you? Fine thanks, and you? It’s amazing wherever that abides in the human being, there is the nobleness of the human spirit, despite it all…black and white…Asian, spanish, native american…pretty plain thin fat…vowed or celibate….we rise….”
Here is Maya Angelou, reading her iconic poem, Still I Rise:
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
Just ‘cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?

Does my sassiness upset you?
Don't you take it awful hard
Just ‘cause I laugh as if I have gold mines
Digging in my own backyard.

You can shoot me with your words,
You can cut me with your eyes,
You can kill me with your hatefulness,
But just like life, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance as if I have diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past rooted in pain
I rise
A black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak miraculously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the hope and the dream of the slave.
And so naturally
There I go rising
Jamie J: I’m Jamie J. You’ve been listening to Commonspace, a collaboration between First Person Arts and WHYY, and it’s been supported by the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. Commonspace includes a monthly broadcast and podcasts available on iTunes and Stitcher. Please subscribe, and while you’re listening, give us a rating! I’m Jamie Brunson, host, producer, and co-writer of Commonspace. Elisabeth Perez Luna is the executive producer of Commonspace, and co-writer. Special thanks to Naomi Starobin, who executive produced this episode.
Our Commonspace team members are producer Mike Villers, Dan Gasiewski of First Person Arts, and Associate Producers Jen Cleary and Ali L’Esperance. Our archivist is Dr. Neil Bardhan. Our studio engineer is Charlie Kaier, and our theme music is by Subglo.
I’m Jamie J. Thank you for listening.