One Step Forward, One Look Back
One Step Forward, One Look Back
From the silence breakers to the bathroom ban and immigrant hardships, Commonspace reflects on 2017 with true, brave stories from those who stood up and spoke out.
Guests: Sonia Sanchez, Nimisha Ladva, Kathleen Lafferty, Amrita Subramanian, Denice Frohman, Raheem Brock, Bea Cordelia, Gabrielle Gibson, Jaden Remy Gibson, Emi Mahmoud, Christy NaMee Eriksen, G. Yamazawa, Ross Gay, Mo Burroughs, Christian A’Xavier Lovehall, Dr. Arthur C. Evans, Russell Walker, Mike Green
Many storytellers express their political and personal concerns through poetry. We look back on some of the best poems from Commonspace Season 1, including work from Ross Gay and Emi Mahmoud.
I Am a Man
A doctor, an athlete, an educator, and a veteran join Commonspace host Jamie J. in an honest discussion about living as Black men in America.
Read the transcript
One Step Forward, One Look Back
Jamie J: Welcome to Commonspace…a collaboration between WHYY and First Person Arts. I’m your host Jamie J.
Well, it’s been quite a year, both here at Commonspace, and for the country…
So, today we’re going to look back at some of the stories we shared that reflected on news events over the last twelve months.
Many events inspired the personal stories we heard this year. With the drastic shift in Washington, political change was the news of the day almost every day.
This was also a year of opening conversations about what’s no longer acceptable…a time of saying no to silence in the workplace, in stadiums, and bathrooms and even borderlands. We saw young immigrant “Dreamers” coming out of the shadows to protest deportations of family and friends. And we’ve learned so much from their stories. It was only fitting that one of the first episodes honor this country’s early commitment to immigrants…and to that end, we were thrilled to have poet Sonia Sanchez read for us that beautiful poem from the plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty…The Great Colossus, by Emma Lazarus:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
JAMIE J: Thank you Sister Sonia…our mother of exiles…She’s still a powerful symbol, but these days it’s a little tarnished by a growing acceptance of intolerant attitudes against immigrants. It reminds me of another story from our immigration episode we called “Home of The Brave”. Here the future of an entire immigrant family was on the line, wholly dependent on a judge’s decision. Storyteller Namisha Ladva remembers her day in court.
Namisha Ladva: So I’m going to tell you the story of how I became an American. This is the real story, it’s the one I have never told in public until today. It starts when I was 21 years old. I’m a senior at UCLA. But on this day, I’m in Los Angeles Federal Court, and I am being arrested for the second time. I am an illegal alien and I am turning myself in. When I was 12 years old, my parents came to this country on their visitor visas, fully expecting to over stay, and build a life in this country. My father naively believed that if they just came here, and applied themselves and worked hard, they would find a way to become Americans. That is not how immigration law works in this country. Eventually, they found that there was one possible chance. If we turned ourselves in as illegal aliens, we had the right to a hearing. And at that hearing, if the judge said yes, we could stay and become citizens. If he said no, we would have to leave. There would be no going back to the lives we had built in America.
We had to convince the judge on three grounds. One, that we had made meaningful ties to the country. Two, that we had good moral character. And three, that the deportation itself would cause undue harm. There was one problem. Because of my age, I was no longer included in my parent’s “we”. They had a business here. They employed citizens. They had a child born in this country. I had none of these things.
My only chance was to have my case heard on the same day by the same judge, and hope that the strengths of my parent’s case would inform the decision made on mine.
Our attorney informs me that in Los Angeles there are seven judges who sit on the federal immigration bench. Three of them, he tells us, they are really just looking for a reason to let you stay. The other three, they need to be convinced that we have a pretty good case. The last one…the last one he tells us has a nickname. He’s called “The Hanging Judge”.
On the day of our hearing we’re gathered in the cafeteria. My dad is working the room, ‘cause we’ve invited people to come and support us. And I’m looking around and I see my roommate and her mother, I see the retired teacher couple, who gave my parents money when we ran out. The husband, he’s an avid hunter, a Republican and an NRA supporter. My parents, they’re pretty liberal, and they’re lifelong vegetarians. But these are the people who saved us. And then I see my attorney, and he walks in. Listen, he says, “We got the hanging judge.”
There’s no going back now, we have to get to court. Our attorney just takes it upon himself to walk through the hallways announcing “Hey all these people here today, they’re here for my clients…this family.” And we’re marching down to the courtroom. My dad is holding the door open so people come in and suddenly there’s a loud voice behind him.
“SHUT THE DOOR!!!”
We turn around…it’s the judge. He’s already angry. My dad lets go of the door and sits down as he is told to do so. The judge is looking at the paper work. The first thing he says:
“These people are immediately deportable. There’s no reason for a hearing here today. Why are you wasting my time?” The prosecuting attorney, who represents the Immigration and Naturalization Service stands up. “Your honor, in light of the people who have shown up for this case today, I think we should hear it.” The judge grumbles, but he lets the bailiff call order, and my dad takes the stand. He answers some questions. A psychologist takes the stand. He talks about my brother. He’s eight years old and he’s having nightmares, because he’s afraid he’s going to be separated from his family. That we will abandon him.
So the judge is upset, and he says that’s enough, he doesn’t want to hear anything else. Then he looks up from the papers, and it’s clear he’s made a decision.
“Well,” he said, “in light of all these people you’ve stuffed in my courtroom today, the deportation is cancelled.”
It’s amazing! People get up, they’re screaming, they’re shouting, they’re crying. Everyone is so happy. Everyone is crying except me, because I realize he’s taken my case in his hand…and the first thing he does is slam it to the bench.
“You’re kidding me. This case has truly no merit.”
My attorney gets up, “Your honor, it’s clear that this young lady is part of the family we just heard from. She’s just had a few birthdays and her case has to be heard separately.
“You think this is a birthday party for the girl?”
My lawyer is dangerously red in the face. But the INS prosecuting attorney stands up. “Your honor, I think we should hear this case.”
So I’m called to the stand, I take an oath to promise to tell the truth. The prosecutor asks me some questions about what I’ve been doing, and I tell them that I’ve been a student at UCLA. He asks me if I’ve ever had a job here, and I start to sweat. The truth is, for the last few months at UCLA, I took an office job. I was applying to graduate school and I didn’t have money for my applications.
“Have you worked in this country illegally?”
“Yes, sir, I have.”
My attorney gets up to offer some character witnesses, the judge tells him to sit back down. I am so afraid. Where will they send me? Will they send me to India, where my ancestors are from? I’ve never lived there. Will they send me to Kenya? I was six weeks old when my parents moved from Kenya to England. And then I realize they’ll send me to England, where I can be the brown girl on the bus that no one will sit next to.
The judge calls the attorneys to the bench, and sends them to sit back down. I’m all alone on the stand. I’m looking out at the people who have shown up for me today. They are white, they are black, they are Mexican…some are educated, some are rich, some are working class. They are all strivers, they are all dreamers, they are all American.
I look at the judge. I can tell he’s made his decision. This way, or that way…stay or go. Who will I be without a home. Without my family, without my friends. And then I see that the judge is looking at the people as well.
“The order to deport is cancelled.”
I am so excited I finally let my tears fall. I’m finally home.
Jamie J: Home for Namisha Ladva is in suburban Philadelphia. She’s a writer and teaches writing at Haverford College.
Jamie J: 2017 was a year fraught with acts of courage, both individual and collective. And few were as emotionally charged as the revelations found under the hashtag “MeToo” – the movement of women across the country coming forward with their stories of harassment, assault, and rape…stories of experiences that in some cases destroyed lives and in others forced some to abandon their careers. Participation in #MeToo became so pervasive that Time magazine has named it as its “Person Of The Year”, referring to the women as “The Silence Breakers”.
Storyteller Kathleen Lafferty had a job she loved for ten years, which she eventually abandoned because of constant sexual harassment. Ironically, Kathleen has now found a way to move past her experience through the hopes and dreams of her child…whose only wish is to follow in his mommy’s footsteps.
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 wannabe a firefighter thing. This isn't just Halloween, it's not just dress up day, it's not just Purim, it’s every day. This kid has a full set of turnout gear on the ready at all times in our house. He's pretty serious about it. 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 year 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. 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, 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?” I was like, “Well boss, all the guys have been joking around about “spunk in the bunk” for the last half hour for one thing”
But aside from that, I’ve been here for 7 years and I’ve heard it all and seen it all. 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 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 than 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, 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: Love you back! Kathleen Lafferty 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. She is a writer, storyteller, and mother – and I can’t wait to read it.
Jamie J: Thanks to the courage of women stepping forward with their stories of harassment and assault, society seems to finally be paying serious attention to this issue. But we should not forget that children are all too often victims of this behavior. According to the social justice organization DoSomething.org, 1 out of 3 girls, and 1 out of 5 boys will be sexually abused before they reach 18. Ninety percent of child sexual abuse victims know the perpetrator in some way. Sixty-eight percent are abused by a family member.
Writer Amrita Subramanian is just one example of a woman who came forward to Commonspace with her story of being abused as a child. She bore witness to the lasting damage done to her in our episode called “Haunted”.
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 some place 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: Thank you, Amrita. As a business consultant and executive coach, Amrita Subramanian says she’s grateful to have a safe place to share her stories. And we are grateful for her.
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, and we’re looking back at 2017, through the lens of our first season of Commonspace.
So, if you’re a sports fan at all, you’re probably aware that a lot of the talk about games this year has to do with what happens before they even begin…when players took a knee during the national anthem, in protest of police violence against African Americans. It all started in the 2016 NFL season with Colin Kaepernick, you remember him, the biracial quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, and has now spread across not only the NFL, but to other sports leagues and at all levels of participation, right down to some middle school games. Kaepernick has spent this season off the field, but he ended the year with an award from the ACLU for “risking and losing his job in the service of social justice.”
Now…Colin’s action inspired difficult conversations among folks who disagree about whether it’s appropriate to protest during the national anthem. Storyteller and poet Denice Frohman found herself in just such a conversation – but her situation required delicacy, because the person she disagreed with was in the middle of cutting her hair at the salon. YIKES! No small predicament…Here’s Denice…
Denice Frohman: I was in South Philadelphia getting my hair cut. I take my hair very seriously. And I had walked into a new place, I do try to give my money to black and brown businesses, I was not able to this time...that happens. And I got my hair cut by this new woman; pretty sure it was two white women in the shop. And we were talking - and she was talking about the training she had to become a hairstylist. And Colin Kaepernick, the football player that took a knee - that was sort of swimming in the national discourse - and he had just made an analogy about cosmetologists and folks that need more training – right? To hold a like, a makeup brush, something like that - they need more hours of training than police officers need to hold a gun. And so the analogy popped into my mind, and I said “Wow, that reminds me of Colin Kaepernick and has a really good analogy about this.”
And she goes, "Well, who's that?" and I said he's the football player so and so. And she goes, "Oh yeah, that a**hole." and I go, "Oh boy." And we're looking at each other in the mirror, face to face. And I can't go nowhere, and she goes "What's your analogy?" and I’m like "Well, he said police officers need less training that cosmetologists." and she goes "Well, my brother's a cop." and I go, "Oh, boy" she's got my hair in her hands y’all. She's got my hair in her hands. We're not going nowhere and the point of this story is that I almost didn't say anything. She said her brother's a cop, but don't worry, he's a good cop. Never gonna forget that. "He’s a good cop, trust me, I know". I wish they could just see it from the other side. You know, from our side. She's looped me in now to "us". So, that's a problem. And she kept saying the word "good". As if your goodness absolves you from, you know, from acting on white supremacy, or racism, or sexism, right? If you're good and you go to church on Sundays and you take out the trash when you are supposed to and you get A's, you can't be racist, right? We need to all let loose of that - when men are confronted with rape culture - well, "I’m a good guy". Right?
Like we need to stop the idea that your goodness absolves you of being called out. And so, I almost didn't say something, which is also an important part of the story. Which is also why I’m calling myself out. It would have been a much more comfortable haircut experience, which is how I pamper myself. To not say anything and I was asking her questions for two reasons. One, to find out like, what do you believe? Like I don't know you and I’m trying to figure out how am I supposed to approach this conversation if I do engage and second, to buy myself time to figure out am I engaging? And the thing that popped into my head that made my decision for me was I was neutral enough figure for her to feel comfortable enough to make that comment around me. She wouldn't have said that around somebody black, or visibly brown, right? And so I had a responsibility in that moment. And so if something gets said around you, you have a responsibility in that moment to interrupt it. And then you have to come to terms with how much risk you're willing to take. See, I’ve come to peace with that. There are certain things I’d die for. Point blank, period. Wasn't always that way, you know. But then you don't say anything and you go home, and you die a different way anyway, so…and I think that if we do intervene more, that is part of the work that we all can do.
Jamie J: Denice Frohman is a poet, writer, performer and educator. She was the 2013 Women of the World Poetry Slam Champion, and performed at the White House in 2016. She also works with the Philly Youth Poetry movement. She’ll be back shortly with a remarkable poem.
TEMPLE SPORTS RADIO CLIP: Zack Gelp, WIP Sports: Let’s go out to the hotline, right now and welcome in a Temple University Hall-Of-Famer, played with the Owls from 1998 to 2001. And oh, yes, and he won a Super Bowl championship with the Indianapolis Colts, and that is Raheem Brock…Raheem, Zack Gelp here on Temple’s campus, thanks for a few minutes, how are you?
Raheem Brock: I’m doing pretty good…”
Jaime J: Raheem Brock’s road to becoming a Super Bowl champion, a brilliant defensive end for Indianapolis Colts and the Seattle Seahawks was paved with all sorts of difficult experiences around race. In our episode “Being a Black Man Is A Full Time Job”, Raheem spoke about growing up in a troubled area of Philadelphia. But he says it was the experiences he had during his time in Indianapolis that he found truly shocking.
Raheem Brock: I lived in Germantown, it was pretty bad, I was on Baten street, it was one of the worst streets in Germantown, the cops had to sit up at the corner of my block 24-7. I mean it was pretty crazy I seen a lot of great athletes that coulda been playing somewhere in the NBA or NFL that you know, got shot, accidently, just being outside, you, know, so I mean I seen the craziness, you know, growing up around that area. But I think the biggest impact and experience that I had was when I was in Indianapolis, and seeing stuff that I only saw on TV, and I was still like 21 yeas old, 22…so I think that was different for me that was kind of a shock and I didn’t know how to take it in. You know there was people still getting’ hung out there, and drug down the street, and all this racial stuff going on in Indianapolis…well Indiana period. So, playing ball out there I had to experience a lot of you know, racial stuff going on out there as well. Which was totally different than being in Philadelphia, coming from the city, and then going out to Indianapolis, and have to deal with something like that, and being in a restaurant where they won’t seat you. I was in South Bend and we were sitting there for like two hours, and all the white people were coming in and getting sat and I was with my son’s mom at the time, and her dad just like spazzed out, and I’m like, I can’t believe this, I’m stuck in like the 50s or something like that, it was crazy I couldn’t believe anything like that was still going on still…I mean it’s just…I don’t know…I don’t know.
Jamie J: Raheem, now here you are in Indianapolis facing all this racism, yet you’re supposed to get on the field and bring home a Superbowl championship ring for this place, that is treating you that way, I mean, what is that about, how does that feel?
Raheem Brock: It’s frustrating, to see stuff like that still going on, because I’d never experienced anything to that aspect. Where I’m not getting seated, I’m going to IHOP stuff like that, they sit all the black people in this little box with no lights on the inside of IHOP, and all the white people are on the outside near the windows…I mean I seen it all out there, it was totally different from what I’ve experienced all my life, and I only saw on TV and in movies. Even when now I still get people acting a certain way, I live in a certain area that I know the white people may not like me, or anything like that, but I’m going to be overly friendly just to try to break it, and try to get them to be, like you’re going to talk to me. You know what I’m saying, I don’t care, you know, “what’s up, how you doin’, hi!” I’m gonna force it and be overly friendly and try to get them out of it. I don’t know how their life or what their family has taught them as they grew up. But all I can do is be positive with me, ‘cause all the negative is inflated with the social media and everything like that, so that’s why I try to push like all the good that’s going on in the world.
Jamie J: Now, you’ve also had some interactions with the police, that could have been worse had you not been a pro football player…
Raheem Brock: Yeah, they’ll let me slide a little bit.
Jamie J: Yeah, but if you weren’t…what would happen?
Raheem Brock: Oh yeah, I mean I got in trouble before, I mean I was kinda tough, going back and forth with the cop…They act certain way towards me, then I kinda just, like, spazzed out, and then once they find out who I was, then they’re cool with everything. And I only did it probably like two times. But, um, you know when the cops are acting a certain way toward you, so, it’s frustrating in everything that you go through with your life, and all the experiences of being a black male in this world, you know, it can build up and you can break just like anything, it’s stress.
Jamie J: Standing up for justice – at home, work, school, places of worship, and out in the community…can hopefully impact the larger society. You see, I think there’s a road leading from hate thought to hate speech, and finally…to hate crime…not everyone takes that road, of course…the vast majority of us don’t. But sometimes it’s in those small places, when we don’t take a stand…hate takes root, and blossoms into the unspeakable. Let’s bring back poet Denice Frohman:
Denice Frohman: This next poem is about the Charleston shooting, South Carolina…Dylann Roof walked into mother Emmanuel church and murdered nine black church members for no other reason than his own hatred of anything that didn't look like himself. I had no intention of writing about what happened, I was sort of stuck in my grief…and my brain, what it did, when his name popped up, is I put him sort of in this extreme white supremacist - which he is - KKK bubble in my mind, and I threw it away. And said, well I don't know anybody like that there's nothing for me to do. I became more uncomfortable with that sort of a “letting me off the hook, there's nothing for me to do.” And I think we're faced with that same question. And so during this poem, which is really an open letter to white supremacy…I want you to think of the spaces and the places that you have access to every day…your classroom, your office, the dinner table, the bus ride home, when you’re in the grocery store…and the comments that get made around you that you do not interrupt. See Dylann Roof is not anomalous, we know that more than ever now. He exists on a spectrum, and he is an extreme version of white supremacy and racism. And what exists on this side of the spectrum is Dylann Roof’s version of that ideology and on this end is the microaggressions and the comments that fester. See, no one interrupted Dylann Roof’s ideology along the way, and so he was just on the same train. And so while you may not know a Dylann Roof, you know someone who that maybe can become that in your circle, we all do. And so think about the times you chose not to say something…no matter who you are, because we are all privileged in one kind of way…where is your suffering not placed, where is the suffering of other folks, where you can maybe you can step up. And that is what I am faced with today, and that is what I want you to do.
The Hour Dylann Roof Sat In The Church
By now, you know their names, their cheekbones
The tender hands they offered when you walked in.
You know the quivering strength of prayer,
The art of making god listen.
How faith can summon weary backbones into pyramids.
And you know that grace still lives in a church
That’s had to rebuild itself before
A church that’s cleaned more blood
Off the walls than you have ever fantasized of.
That is to say, you’re not the first white boy to feel small
And create chaos in someone else’s home.
This church is old – much older than you
Wears the audacity of freshly coated white paint
As if to say any ill that smudges us will be for all to see.
Did you hear the echoes when you walked in? Did you feel the pastor soothe the trepidatious voices of ghosts burnt and hung in the name of better days?
So they opened their song for you
Shared in head nod and bible verse
Not knowing they let in
What they spent so much time praying out
Tucked away nearly 400 years of lessons
On what it means to let a white man get too close.
All the bullets in all the world belong to them
Yet doors softened for you—what an unearned miracle.
Do you know what it means to welcome a familiar terror
And hope it got enough God on it this time to leave you be?
Is there some word greater than “noble”?
Your predecessors hid their faces
Threw Molotov cocktails from afar
But your ugly is the kind
That gets to know what it's about to kill.
In that hour, were you studying them like elk?
Were you surprised when they prayed for you
Even as you preyed on them?
Did they greet you with too many, “come on ins”?
Did you imagine abandoned prayers?
Did your teeth clench when they said, “god forgives you”?
Did your jaw tighten when they said, “bless your heart”?
Did their soft voices almost provoke the rage out of you?
Did you wonder how the hell they were still standing?
Did you wonder why God hadn’t made good on the fire next time?
Did your skin itch when the congregation
Said your name like it was worth keeping?
Did you look at their hands? The folds of their skin?
Did you panic then?
Did you forget who the animal was?
Did your feet become hoofed, and back sporting a new tail?
Did the gun begin to rattle?
Did the heavy metal fever and sweat?
Did the script get hazy?
Did you forget your lines?
Is that when you almost walked out?
How many crosses did you have to burn in your head
To remember what you came for?
How many of their names did you have to unlearn?
Did your hands turn black after you threw your gun down?
Did the bullets pull themselves out of their skin
And chase you out?
Is that why you ran?
Why you could stay for bible study,
But not to see what music
God still offers the dead to keep them warm?
Did you hear your father say, “Good job son”?
Did you hear America whisper, “Good job son”?
Did you hear every history textbook write your name?
Did you wink at the police when they searched your pockets?
Did you say, “Hey, brother”? Did they say, “Hey", back?
When you realized they were enjoying you
Was it then that you shot them all?
Was it then that you couldn't say you enjoyed them too?
When you see god, will he tell you how bad you smell?
Will you say you already know?
A stench like this isn’t made overnight, y’all
It takes a whole lot of hands
And much longer than an hour.
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 & Heritage. I’m your host Jamie J, and we’re looking back at our stories from 2017.
This was a year in which the transgender community endured an incredible act of discrimination - being denied the opportunity to use bathrooms of their gender identity in peace. They spent the year fighting laws and attitudes that kept them at times literally holding it in, in fear for their safety. But like the dreamers who have left the shadows, athletes who take a knee, and the women who told their stories of harassment and worse, the transgender community stood up to be heard.
While acceptance by the broader community is important, for storyteller Bee Cordelia, the most important acceptance starts with SELF acceptance…a journey that’s difficult enough without outside prejudices closing in…
BEA CORDELIA: Shower On the third day of the camping trip you and your father stay at the yard of the house of your father’s cousin Linda and her regrettable husband George, who cracks casually racist and sexist jokes as if they were funny and if they weren’t subtly killing you and all your friends.
Linda lives with George in a cabin. They are dispatching several trees to keep expanding in the middle of the Hiawatha National Forest, a land named after peacemaking Native American leader and federally protected by gun toting white people because even in nature, colonialism is alive and thriving.
You spend too much time indoors over the course of the day but you also hate the mosquitoes and who can really live in the outdoors anyway? You think maybe Theroux was a crackpot. You think maybe this trip was a waste.
You pit the radical potential of the wilderness and its utter absence of structure that you believe conducive to healing and freedom or even utopia against George’s jokes and the rednecks that populate this peninsula. You think maybe nature, like all else, is a commodity for the privileged. If you can’t feel safe amongst the trees and no one, after all, where can you? But you remember all those times when you came up here as a kid to the mythical upper peninsula of Michigan where you first found God and that little seed inside your soul you had already learned too well to bury and aren’t you searching for some shard of yourself that you left out here anyhow? Or perhaps you were never meant to come back to this place after all.
Linda, who you like, pours you a glass of wine and says, “You may be able later, see the Aurora Borealis,” but you think probably not. These things rarely line up right. You have never before seen the Aurora Borealis but you imagine it like an un-ownable shower of particles and light.
On the third evening of the trip, after kayaking down the winding Au Train river, sixteen miles or more, that morning into the afternoon under that hot star sun and after hiking the day before through sand in the bonedry heat and being in more simultaneous places than seems possible most maliciously mauled by death flies and for hours and hours and hours and hours and hours you finally have a place by yourself to shower.
You take a moment when you shut the door to look in the mirror as you strip. Your sweaty, smelly clothes, like failed attempts, fall to the floor. No one can see. The part of your chest above your sports bra has been burned by the hot star sun. Your breasts are still small, but shapely. Later you will inject yourself with estrogen in a tent. For now, you have your hands. You feel your breasts. You trace the pink lines your failed attempts left. You turn on and step into the Aurora Borealis. Particles and light cascade. You realize this is the first time in days you have been naked. You feel yourself naked. You feel your genitals. They are soft in your hand. You feel your shoulders. The skin is tender with red. You feel your feet. They are worn but working. You wash your feet like Jesus did the disciples but it’s just you. Water drips. The spirit moves. The Aurora Borealis would have been beautiful. But you could not have held it in your hand.
JAMIE J: Bea Cordelia is an awardwinning, Chicagobred writer, performer, educator & activist.
Jamie J: We named our show Commonspace, because we believe that there is indeed a common space, where are humanity makes us the same, and that a common space during times of calm AND tumult, can be a safe place that reminds us that we are more alike than different. This year, we found Commonspace to be a place of bravery…of voices reaching out of silence…and of resilience. We’d like to close out this year of so much conflict on a high note of love and joy…and who doesn’t love a wedding, am I right?
Gabrielle Gibson: As a transgendered woman, dating is…
Jaden Remy Gibson: Stop saying “transgendered”…
Gabrielle Gibson: I didn’t say “transgendered”…I said “transgender”
Jaden Remy Gibson: There you go, you got it…
Gabrielle Gibson: And you always correct me when I don’t say that, so don’t correct me! Stop it! (laughter)
Jamie J: That’s Gabrielle Gibson and Jaden Remy Gibson, who’ve found love and are wedding bound. Finding love is never easy, and the dating pool narrows in the LGBT community. Finding love in the transgender community canb even more difficult. But how often do transgender people end up together?
Jaden Remy Gibson: Trans relationships are extremely common, only because, you know, we find that, you know, acceptance within ourselves. It’s someone who’s going through what we’re going through.
Jamie J: How did you too meet?
Jaden Remy Gibson: Do you wanna? Do you want me to say it?
Gabrielle Gibson: You tell the story better than I do…
Jaden Remy Gibson: You didn’t know that I was transgender.
Gabrielle Gibson: I didn’t even know he was transgender when I was first talking to him. It was like crazy, I’m like, wait…I wasn’t looking for anything, and we started talking and it was friendly, and I enjoyed the friendly conversation, it was different than what I normally experienced with guys. I was heavy into being a showgirl and performing was my job at the time. So I was going back and forth to Atlantic City and he was like, well, since I can’t get you to take off of work…I’m just gonna pick you up, and we’re going to go down to Atlantic City and there we go, and I was like, fine…
Jaden Remy Gibson: And it was all down hill from there.
Gabrielle Gibson: Yeah, that’s how we met, and we had the conversation, let’s keep it casual and then a month later I was living there.
Jamie J: Ok, so that’s how you got together. But there are so many that find trans people threatening. Why do you think that is?
Gabrielle Gibson: Being transgender is not a choice. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. I’m living my life, and I have an amazing life, that I created. But I didn’t choose this for myself. I had to work really hard to get to this point. And to have people sit there and try to dictate where I can go to the bathroom just because I was born one way, and that’s not how I identify…it sucks. Wholeheartedly. And it’s terrible. It’s absolutely terrible. And I’m…I’m happy that I’ve gotten to a point where I was passable…But I wasn’t always passable. And even when I wasn’t been passable, I had no problems going to the bathroom anywhere. So why is there issues with people now? Why? That’s all I wanna know.
Jamie J: Gabby and Jaden were so in love…I was dying to know about their wedding plans.
Gabrielle Gibson: He’s the one who planned it, I just showed up!
Jaden Remy Gibson:Yeah, so I decided I wanted to do the proposal where I took her on our first date, and that was Longwood Gardens. And when we went on that first date it was raining, so we kinda hid out in the tree houses there. So, I was like, I’m gonna propose to her in that tree house. So I put a little private Facebook event together, and invited her family and my family and our friends. And then her best friend Sierra told her that she had gotten free tickets to a spa day at Longwood Gardens. So we were all there waiting, everybody was on the lawn in front and I was standing on the balcony of the tree house…and her dad was hiding in the bushes with her camera…her dad’s great. And uh, here she is, her and Sierra in these six inch stiletto heels walking through Longwood Gardens…I felt so bad I was like, Oh God…
Gabrielle Gibson: Very irritated. (Laughs)
Jaden Remy Gibson: And I was just standing up there and she started walking up, and I think she was kinda like “What the hell is…whaaa? These people, Oh my god that’s my cousin, what are you guys doing here, did you get tickets for the spa thing?” Like you know, and then she kinda looked up and we both, you know, started crying, and she walked up to the tree house…and I had all these things in my head that I wanted to say but I think I was just literally (wimpering) ‘Will you marry me-ee-ee?” You know, I was just crying the whole time, I don’t even think I got it fully out. And she just said yes.
Gabrielle Gibson: So my dad was taking a whole bunch of pictures, and I’m wearing these really high heels, and it’s a deck. So I’m crying,walking up steps, and being very aware that I’m wearing heels on wood planks, and praying that my foot doesn’t go through the wood plank. And as he starts to drop to his knee, my heel goes in the crack of the wood plank. And I’m like holding every bit of emotion and everything in my core, because I’m like if I fall over while this is going on, it’s gonna go viral and be like, “bride falls off of balcony during her proposal”, that was thoughts in my head. And then I was like I heard him saying “You are the most important thing to me and I am so happy to have you in my life.” And then he drops to his knee and says “Will you marry me.” But it was a little more emotional and I was so excited and so happy and I said “Yes!” And then all I could hear was my mom going “Did you say yes??” it was like “Yeah…”
Jaden Remy Gibson: I mean her family, really, out of everyone that I’ve dated definitely wholeheartedly embraced me. I feel…I feel like part of the family, and that’s really I think all anyone can ask for in a partner and their family.
Jaden Remy Gibson (sighs) I love you…
Gabrielle Gibson: I love you…
Jaden Remy Gibson: I love you.
Jamie J: That’s Gabrielle Gibson and Jaden Remy Gibson living in their truth in love. We wish them the very best.
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. Now, Commonspace includes a monthly broadcast and podcasts available on iTunes and Stitcher. Please subscribe….and give us a rating!
Elisabeth Perez Luna is the Executive Producer and co-writer of Commonspace. Special thanks to Naomi Starobin, who executive produced this episode. I’m Jamie Brunson, host, producer, and co-writer. Our team members are Producer Mike Villers, Dan Gasiewski and Tenesha Ford of First Person Arts, and Associate Producers Ali L’Esperance and Jen Cleary of WHYY. Our archivist is Dr. Neil Bardhan. Our studio engineer is Al Banks. And our theme music is by Subglo. Thank you so much for listening to Season 1 of Commonspace. And don’t you worry. We’ll be back with Season 2 in the spring, with more great stories…on Commonspace. In the meantime you’ll hear encore presentations of our best episodes in our normal time slot, 8 pm on the last Sunday of each month. Tune in! I’m your host Jamie J, wishing you the happiest of New Years.