Stories from the Stage

S4 E12 | FULL EPISODE

All Mixed Up

When you live between two cultures, searching for your place in the world can be a journey. Harleen watches perceptions change based on the race of the man she’s dating; Mayowa asserts her Black identity, despite her light skin; and Samantha's mixed race friend shows her what life is like when assumptions are made. Three storytellers, three interpretations of ALL MIXED UP, hosted by Wes Hazard.

AIRED: March 22, 2021 | 0:26:28
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TRANSCRIPT

HARLEEN SINGH: And a handsome young man smiles at me.

I smile back, and then I hear my roommate say,

"Harleen, don't do that. He's a..."

she uses the n-word.

MAYOWA LISA REYNOLDS: As we pass this elderly gentleman

on the porch with a shotgun on his lap, he yelled,

"Hey, what y'all doing with that white girl?"

SAMANTHA THOMSON: I didn't understand

what I had done wrong.

All I was doing was helping.

You're supposed to help.

WES HAZARD: Tonight's theme is "All Mixed Up."

Tonight, our theme is "All Mixed Up."

And when it comes to race,

the in-between can get pretty murky.

If you're born into two cultures,

does one tend to take precedence over the other?

And if so, is the other one automatically erased?

Tonight, our tellers will share their stories

about being a part of

and finding their place in

communities where different races and cultures meet.

REYNOLDS: I am Mayowa Lisa Reynolds.

I was born in Detroit, Michigan.

I am a minister, an educator, and an artist.

During the week, I'm a principal of the Detroit School of Arts.

In the evenings and on the weekend,

I'm a minister at Fellowship Chapel,

and whenever I get a chance, I love to dance or act or sing,

although I'm not that good at it.

Oh, that's such a beautiful story to hear.

I'm wondering, what has storytelling taught you so far?

Actually, storytelling

has made me be more introspective.

When you tell other people's stories,

like you read a script, you, you don't have to connect to it

other than getting in character.

But when you have to tell a story that you write

from your own life experience,

it stretches you.

And once I told a story about myself,

things that I would have never told anyone publicly,

it gave me a sense of freedom and liberation,

because once I tell my own story,

no one can use my narrative against me,

because it's mine.

You use storytelling as a vehicle

to empower the youth of Detroit, and I'm wondering,

what do you see as the power of storytelling itself,

especially now?

As humans, we love listening to stories.

We love telling stories,

and it really is a way to pass down history.

And if you are marginalized,

whatever that means for you, if you've been marginalized,

you don't find your story in what's called mainstream media.

So if more people told their stories,

and we flood, um, the space, with the variety of stories

that we each have, then we create a better humanity.

I grew up in Detroit, Michigan, a beautiful city

built by a mighty river,

filled with people, Black people,

most of whom had moved up north from various places in the south

to provide a better life for their families.

I grew up in a very close-knit neighborhood

where everyone watched out for each other.

As children, we would play from dawn until dusk,

and each family would watch after us.

I grew up in a loving family, a kind family,

a talented, intelligent, interesting family

of Black people.

All shades of black,

from deep, dark chocolate to creamy beige

and everything in between.

And there was no hierarchy based on skin color.

The only time skin color came up was at school

with kids that maybe weren't on my block or I didn't know.

Sometimes a kid would approach me and say,

"Is your mama white?"

With anger and exclamation, I would say "No!"

"Is your daddy white then?"

Now I'm ready to fight.

"No!"

Why would they invade my personal space

to ask me if one of my parents was white?

I didn't even know any white people.

I mean, my parents were Black, indigenous,

and maybe white somewhere back in generations ago,

but no one that we knew of.

This would happen several times throughout my childhood.

I remember once when I was attending school

in Evergreen, Alabama, with my cousins.

We were walking home from school one day,

and as we passed this elderly gentleman

on the porch with a shotgun on his lap, he yelled,

"Hey, what y'all doing with that white girl?"

And we ran as fast as we could laughing.

And my older cousin Eugene yelled back,

"That ain't no white girl, that's my cousin!"

(chuckles)

Incidents like this happened often.

An older cousin or a niece or a nephew

would get into a conversation or an altercation

with someone who was questioning my place in society

or whether I was somehow white or had white parentage.

This would happen throughout my childhood,

and these incidents will continue to happen

in different ways as a young adult.

But they had subsided.

Most people knew by then

that while I did not fit their stereotype

or description of a Black woman,

they'd dare not approach me and ask me about my heritage.

When I was 26, I gave birth to my first child, a girl.

I was living in Panama, and my dad had become really ill,

so we came to Detroit to visit.

And while I was here with relatives,

I was sitting at the kitchen counter one day

with a close relative and we were having a conversation

and she was going on and on about how everyone was saying

I was going to have a girl

and some people said I would have a boy,

and she said how she had got into this discussion

because my mom said that I would have a girl first.

And she named all the people who had girls first

and she was explaining why.

And then very casually,

this relative said, "Well, I don't know why

you think that, Lisa was adopted."

And she continued on in her conversation,

but in that moment, I froze.

I felt heat throughout my body.

I felt everything close in, and I said softly,

"I didn't know."

I would say it more than once and she never picked up.

I just kept saying, "I didn't know."

I would nurse my baby, cry,

smile, and laugh with family members.

I shared it with no one, and I just kept saying,

"I didn't know."

All those memories began to flood back.

All those times someone questioned my place in society,

my Blackness, my Detroit-ness.

And I kept saying "I didn't know."

Could it possibly be?

I couldn't even wrap my mind around the possibility

that there was a white parent.

Where did I come from?

Who was I?

I didn't know.

Well, a few years later,

my parents found out that I knew,

and so they took me into their room,

and the conversation went something like this.

"We met you when you were six months old.

"And we loved you from the very first time we saw you.

"And we have loved you ever since.

"We are your family and we love you dearly.

"The documents were destroyed when you turned 18 years old,

because we are your parents."

It took a long time to deal with the loneliness,

the feeling of abandonment, the shame.

The not knowing when I would,

when I would look in the mirror as a kid,

and I would say "I don't see what others see.

"I'm just me.

"I'm just Lisa.

"I'm loved, I'm cared for.

"I have this great family.

I fit in."

But now I question all of that.

And so, 30 years later,

lots of work on forgiveness,

dance, culture,

a great, wonderful marriage and relationship.

Two more children and a grandson later,

I've put the pieces back together

because I'm very clear on who I am.

As I opened up the unidentifying information,

I was able to read the story of my birth.

My mother was a 19-year-old unwed Black teen

who was unable to keep me.

I came out red, fiery hair, blue eyes,

and the palest of skins.

She talked about how she wished she could keep me,

but she didn't have support.

The agency even talked about how they had difficulty placing me

because they like to keep children with their race.

Black people thought I was way too light for them,

and white people were very unsure

how I would turn out with a Black mother.

So in walks into the scene,

into my world and to my life at six months old,

my mother and my father, to the foster care agency,

where they said they fell in love with me

the first time they saw me.

And they provided for me the safety, the love,

the security that I needed to develop

and become the woman I am today.

So placing me in the right place

and the right time for the right parents

and I will always know who I am.

I am Mayowa Ope' Oluwa Lisa Reynolds.

I am a Black woman.

SINGH: My name is Harleen Singh.

I was born and brought up in India.

I came to the United States as a student.

I now live in Wellesley, Massachusetts,

and I'm a professor of literature, South Asian studies,

and women and gender studies at Brandeis University.

How did you get into live storytelling,

and what role does storytelling play in your life now?

Well, you know, this is the first time

I'm telling any story for a wide audience

on a stage and in this format.

I'm a professor.

I'm a professor of literature.

Stories are what I do.

We read stories, we talk about stories.

I feel very fortunate that

I am paid to live in this world of stories.

So, you know, storytelling for me really is

a way of communicating with my students,

getting them to understand why we read what we read

and why this is so important for us.

I can give them all the articles, all the data,

all the statistics,

all the scholarly dissertations that I can.

But when I tell them a story about a story

and get them to connect to something about that story,

then I truly reach them.

And what would you like people to take away

after hearing your story tonight?

That life is complicated, that it is harsh.

That is all mixed up.

The things that we think we understand--

race, romance, being young--

all of these things can mean different things

to different people.

And that may be crucial to understanding one another,

is simply to listen to each other's story.

I'm a young girl

beginning college in the United States.

I've left my home in the foothills of the Himalayas

to come all the way to Virginia.

It's a long flight, but not quite as long as my journey,

which begins with one trip to one town to take the S.A.T.s

and to yet another to take TOEFL--

Test of English as a Foreign Language.

And then there's the visa officer at the U.S. Consulate.

He tells me he doesn't believe I'm a serious enough student.

Maybe he's right.

And yet, somehow, in all my unseriousness,

I have become a professor.

In Virginia, I'm astonished at the blue of the mountains,

the red of the earth, and the brown of my skin.

It's lighter than black, but it's darker than white.

I know about American history, slavery, the Civil War.

But I'm unprepared for the harsh persistence of racism.

It's my first weekend in college.

I don't quite fit the crowd with pearls,

nor the ones with BMW and horses,

and nobody has been very friendly to me yet.

And so when Kristen,

And so when Kristen,

a petite white girl, asks me to go to the dollar theater,

I'm happy to do so.

Another girl drives.

On the way back, it's dark.

There's not that many cars on the road,

and we stop at a red light.

I'm happy, I'm young.

I'm away from home, I'm away from love,

but I'm also happy to be on my own.

And there's a nice breeze coming in off the James River.

Another car pulls up

and a handsome young man in that car smiles at me.

It's just like the American movies.

It's very exciting-- I smile back,

and then I hear my roommates say, "Harleen!

"Don't do that, he's a..."

she uses the n-word.

I'm shocked...

the weight of it.

I remember, of course, that the word was also used

for my grandfather by the British.

I ask her, "Kristen, well, then what am I?"

She responds, "Harleen, you're from India."

I'm not sure how geography has settled this question,

but I am very sure I will never be in this car

again with these people.

Other stereotypes apply to me.

People assume I come from a gender segregated society.

The fact that I had friends who were boys,

or that I played soccer with them,

all this is irrelevant.

And prejudice runs in many directions.

My stepmother in India is excited that I might come home

with an interesting American.

But she's also apprehensive

that he might be an African American.

Well, I don't date that much.

Brown Indian woman with an accent,

oversized thrift store clothes...

(chuckles) very sharp opinions.

Not exactly a winner.

But I do realize,

and I learn, that races don't mix.

Some years later,

I date a Black man with long dreadlocks.

He has a cautious smile.

It's almost as if he's waiting for the world to hurt him.

We meet quite by chance.

I don't remember if it's the copier room or the mail room.

I know it's hard to believe, but Xerox machines

with the vectors of passion in those days.

We go to the college cafeteria for breakfast.

My head is filled with ideas of "Do I like him?

"Does he like me?

What does this mean?"

But I'm quickly reminded that romance is regulated here,

just as it was in India.

The disapproval in the dining hall is palpable, real.

People actually pick up their plates

and go to far away tables.

No one says anything, and yes,

no one says anything--

an anomaly in the charm that is Southern hospitality.

Hm, I realize, of course, thatLoving v. Virginia,

that landmark case that made it okay

for different races to love each other,

did happen in this state.

Well, there's reading to be done.

I'm enthralled by the American classroom,

people asking for my opinion, independent reading.

I take every course I can in literature and philosophy

and religion and history and politics.

And yes, I am Indian-- I also take computer science.

I take as many jobs on campus as I can

to earn a bit for my tuition and also to earn enough

to go home to see the family I have not seen in two years.

In my senior year, I date a white man.

He's tall, athletic, a photographer.

His love for the mountains is endearing.

We spend many hours walking through the Blue Ridge.

One day he surprises me with wildflowers.

They're warm, they're beautiful.

They're unlike anything I've ever seen.

I gush, "I like them."

I like him, too.

We spent some time and then I walk him, in hand in hand,

back to his car.

On the way back I meet some girls who live on the same hall.

(chuckles) They gush, too.

"Harleen, was that your boyfriend?

"He brought you flowers?

"Oh, he's so charming, he's so handsome.

I wish I had a boyfriend like that."

I walk back to my room.

And then this ugly, clawing thing fills my insides.

Harleen plus Black man equals disapproval.

Harleen plus white man equals gushing acceptance.

Loving in Virginia was an education.

The mountains were kind; the people, too.

I learned how to read, how to write, how to dance.

But a sad, wry smile still makes its way to my face

every time I drive into the state

and see the sign "Welcome to Virginia.

Virginia is for lovers."

THOMSON: My name is Samantha Thomson.

I'm from Whitman, Massachusetts,

and I'm a first-year nursing student at Curry College.

Well, please tell me,

how did you get into live storytelling?

I got into live storytelling

through one of my classes at Curry,

and I was immediately interested.

And we got the opportunity

to create our own story,

and this was something that I never normally would have done.

So I decided to just do it, get out of my comfort zone.

And then I presented it

for the very first time to my classmates.

And it was just the most amazing experience,

and I knew that I wanted to do it again.

And so can you please share with us

what you've learned during the process of crafting your story?

The biggest thing I've learned during this process

is that there's no right or wrong way

to write your story and tell it.

You can tell any story

any way that you want.

You just have to have that inspiration

and follow through with it.

I'm seven years old

and I'm at swimming lessons.

The other kids and I are splashing around, laughing,

and having so much fun together,

as first graders do, and we're all so excited,

it's our first day, and as we wait our turn

to kickboard across the pool,

we're dunking our heads under the water

and blowing bubbles into the surface.

But out of the corner of my eye,

I notice a girl that isn't dunking under

like the rest of us.

Instead, she's clinging to the side of the pool.

So I was like, I'll swim over, and I went over

and I say, "Hi, I'm Sam,

do you want to swim underwater with me?"

And she looks at me and she's like,

"I don't know how to swim underwater."

And I was like "What do you mean?

"Okay, well, I'll help you, I love helping people,

I'm always ready to help."

So I took my hands, I placed them on her shoulders,

and I pushed her under.

And then her arms start flailing.

I just keep pushing and she keeps flailing.

And finally one of the teachers notices

that I'm literally about to drown this girl I had just met.

And so I was quickly taken aside,

and I was getting scolded about pool rules and pool safety,

and the whole time I was getting yelled at,

I just couldn't believe it

because I didn't understand what I had done wrong.

All I was doing was helping.

You're supposed to help.

So I was brought over to apologize,

and I was met by a very angry fellow first grader

who immediately started screaming to the entire pool

that I had tried to kill her.

And that's how I met my best friend Catherine.

Ever since that day at swimming lessons,

Catherine and I have been best friends.

We've bonded over our shared love for science,

Disney movies, and her mom's amazing homemade egg rolls.

Catherine's mom immigrated to America from Vietnam

as a young woman where she met and married

Catherine's dad, who's white.

As a Vietnamese American, Catherine often expresses

how difficult it is to decide

which cultural identity she most resonates with.

Although my own family has its own numerous

cultural backgrounds, my skin is white,

making it default that I identify as so.

Catherine and I are similar in so many ways.

We have similar likes.

We have similar family dynamics.

Both of our parents are still married.

We both live in a house, and neither one of us has pets.

Even though Catherine and I are so similar,

we are still different because I can never understand

what it's like to be in Catherine's shoes.

Instances that I saw as innocent enough,

Catherine didn't.

Catherine expressed discomfort about them.

I remember, back in freshman year,

Catherine and I sat together filling out our PSAT forms.

When I got to the race and ethnicity section,

I quickly bubbled in "white" and moved on.

But I noticed Catherine's pencil, and I noticed her face,

and she looked so confused.

So I asked her what was wrong because I was like,

"It's just, you know, a bubble sheet."

And she looked at me and she was like,

"I don't know what bubble to fill in."

And I was like, "Well, what do you mean

you don't know what bubble to fill in?"

Because, I mean, I had just found white right at the top,

filled it in and moved on.

But then I realized Catherine had to choose

between Asian and white.

There was no biracial or multiracial option.

Catherine was going to have to choose

when she shouldn't have to, because she is Asian American.

I don't experience these situations,

and I never will.

And the only thing I can do about that is listen to her.

I can listen to my best friend scream about

how the world isn't the equal place it's meant to be.

I can listen to her rant about how hard it is to survive

as a biracial individual when no one seems

to give a second thought to biracial individuals.

The most important thing I can do for Catherine

is listen to her and support her in any

and every way that I can, but I cannot walk in her shoes.

I can just stand by her side.

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