Stories from the Stage


Growing Up Black Part 2

Growing up Black in America means cultural bonds, the struggle for visibility, and all too often, unearned judgement. Valerie teaches her students about Africa's greatest explorer; U-Meleni brings her son to a protest of George Floyd’s death; and Harold shows how fear of the police affects his everyday life. Three stories, three interpretations of GROWING UP BLACK PART 2, hosted by Theresa Okokon.

AIRED: February 15, 2021 | 0:26:29

VALERIE TUTSON: I was young, I was Black,

I was a teaching artist

and a storyteller,

and I had an opportunity.

HAROLD COX: My heart rate began to go

up a little bit.

Why is he talking to me?

What did I do wrong?

The police appear, but the kids are running away.

The kids are scared,

and I hear one of them say,

"I don't want to die today.

I don't want to die today."

THERESA OKOKON: Tonight's theme is "Growing Up Black."

As a kid, everyone called me Ini.

It's a nickname for my middle name, Ini-Obong,

which is in an Ibibio name given to me by my father,

who was born and raised in Nigeria.

My name means "God's clock" or "God's time,"

and it's a name that I have always been

incredibly proud of.

So on my first day of kindergarten,

I was excited to announce my name as Ini

to my kindergarten teacher.

She looked my mother in the eye and then asked,

"Does she have a real name?

An American name that we can call her?"

The name that my mother offered was Theresa,

because it is my first name.

In kindergarten, I learned my ABCs, my one, two, threes,

and I learned to respond when someone called me

the name Theresa.

Which is to say that as the only Black kid in the room

in kindergarten, I learned to assimilate

because I was raised in an almost entirely white community

and all I ever wanted was to fit in.

And it would be years, decades even, before I would

finally realize that fitting in means allowing myself

to be my truest sense of self.

TUTSON: My name is Valerie Tutson.

I live in Providence, Rhode Island.

I've been working as a full-time storyteller

since the early 1990s,

and I also run the Rhode Island Black Storytellers.

Tell me about the type of stories you like to tell.

I love to tell stories that come from Black history.

I really like to tell the stories that I wish

that I had heard growing up.

And I also like to tell stories that come from folklore,

folk traditions.

And tell me a bit about how you discovered

the power of storytelling.

I mean I grew up in a very small town.

There were not a lot of people who looked like me in any way.

So the way that I

learned about people and learned about the world

was through stories.

You know, at that time that I was reading, right?

So the library was my refuge.

And in my work

as a storyteller I'm reminded again and again and again,

that what story does that information doesn't,

story opens up our imagination.

Hip hop is definitely not my medium,

but I worked hard to craft the opening to a story

I could not wait to tell my students.

I wanted to tell them the true story of Abubakri,

an African king who had sailed across the sea

in the 1300s, nearly 200 years before Christopher Columbus

sailed to this side of the world,

ushering in the era of colonialism

that we are still reckoning with.

I first found this story in a book called

They Came Before Columbus by Ivan Van Sertima,

and when I was reading it, I couldn't put it down.

I was captivated by his descriptions

of the African civilizations, and I was inspired

by the king's desire to put war aside and follow his dream

to travel across the sea.

I was nearly 30 years old, and I was angry

because I'd never heard this story before,

and I wanted to tell it.

I wanted to tell it so that people would know

that Black lives before the transatlantic slave trade

and its impact on the world had warped our perception

of what it has meant to be Black in the world.

So I distilled all of that dense historical information

and crafted an exciting adventure.

And when my students rolled into the cafeteria-turned-drama-class

on that afternoon, I let it rip.

I started with that rap and I knew I had them.

One of the kids started to beat box underneath my words,

and pretty soon we were all on the journey with Abubakri

as he dismissed his military advisers,

and called for the scholars from Timbuktu,

and then called for the boat builders to come.

When that first fleet of boats were ready,

we were there, and we watched them

go down the river towards the sea.

And when they didn't return, we understood why

the king himself had to get on board that next fleet of ships

and leave his kingdom behind to his family

and his storyteller in pursuit of his dream.

And when he arrived in Central America in 1311,

we rejoiced that his dream had come true

almost 200 years before Columbus in 1492.

When the story was done, I felt good.

There was a stillness in the room.

And then I heard it.

"Nah, miss, that's not true."

"What do you mean?"

I looked over at the kid who had said this and I was surprised.

He was generally one of the most easygoing and supportive kids

in the whole class.

"Nah, miss," he said.

"No African could have done anything like that.

"That's impossible.

That story is a lie."

And pretty soon all of the rest of the kids were joining in.

"Yeah, miss, that's not true.

That story's a lie."

And the story magic was broken.

I have to say that my first response

to what they were doing was visceral.

I was taken right back to my middle school days.

In my small town I was one of only a handful of Black kids

in the entire school.

And whenever we got to the part about Black history,

it always started with slavery.

And we would see those pictures of Africans, usually half naked,

being crowded into the bottom of a ship.

And my peers would snicker under their breaths,

and I would hear them say things like, "Ooga booga, ooga booga,"

or whatever it is a middle schooler imagines

might be "African."

Because, let's face it, we were all learning

that they were primitive, isn't that right?

But even then I knew in my bones that there was more to that.

I just didn't know what it was.

My mother was always trying to bring my brother and me

books about Black history and I remember Harriet Tubman,

and Frederick Douglass, and Mary McLeod Bethune.

But even those triumphant stories were always told

in the context of slavery.

But when I found that story of Abubakri,

I found that more that I was looking for.

And I wanted my students to have that.

Here I was in a classroom

with mostly Black and Brown teenagers,

and they couldn't even imagine that an African

had sailed across the sea before Christopher Columbus.

The young kid was Dominican, a mix of African, and Spanish,

and European from the Caribbean.

And he, like I, had somehow learned to denigrate Africa

and her people.

There's a saying in Zimbabwe that until the lion

tells the story, the hunter always wins.

There were mostly Black and Brown kids at this school,

but there was only one full-time Black teacher.

All the others were white, and then those of us

who were people of color were jobbed in

to do extracurriculars.

But we had a lot of leeway

to bring in things that would benefit the students.

I was young, I was Black, I was a teaching artist

and a storyteller,

and I had an opportunity.

I looked at the faces of my students.

This is a true story

and it is not the only one.

Long before the African slave trade,

there were African scholars,

there were African doctors,

there were African artisans and craftspeople.

There still are

and we are gonna learn and share their stories.

We spent the whole semester

studying ancient African civilizations

and we made a play.

That young man was an African king,

and at his side was a beautiful Black young woman as his queen

dressed in African garb. (chuckles)

I found a picture from those days recently,

and it was definitely a low production quality experience,

for sure.

But the pride and the smiles of those young people's faces

told it all.

Now that young man, he graduated high school,

went to college, finished college,

lived in Africa, and when he came back,

he went back and got a Master's in education.

A few years ago, he was an acting administrator

at the very school where he and I had met.

Recently, he took a full-time administrative position

at a school in the city where we both live.

I know because I follow him on Facebook.

And as I follow his adventures, I can't help but remember

Abubakri and the journey he took centuries ago

in pursuit of his dream.

And I'm reminded again of how that story

impacted my life's work.

COX: My name is Harold Cox.

I live in Dorchester, Massachusetts.

I'm originally from Texas,

and I work at Boston University

as a professor in the School of Public Health.

Tonight's theme is "Growing Up Black."

What does that theme mean for you?

You know, I have to tell you, I don't always think every day,

"Well, I'm Black."

But I am aware of how being Black has shaped

a lot of who I am.

Why did you feel like it was important for you to share

this particular story?

Because it illustrates some issues, some concerns,

that I have about being a Black man.

It's a story that for some reason is just stuck with me.

Yeah, that's one of my favorite things about storytelling

is that it allows you to sort of get to the bottom

of why moments linger in, in your mind.

At least, that's what it does for me.

And what would you like for the audience to take away

from your story this evening?

I want them to remember how complicated life is.

I want them to remember how things that have happened

in the past continue to shape us right now.

In my work life I have had lots of fancy titles.

I have been called dean, professor, director, chief.

I am somewhere close to

or maybe just beyond retirement age.

I'll let you do the math.

I have a house, a car.

I go on wonderful vacations, and I love every trip

that I've ever had down in South America.

I have lots of friends and I have a wonderful family.

About, mmm, five years ago,

I drove my car up into a... to a gas pump

that was at a convenience store.

After I pump gas, I went inside the store.

All right, now, here's another truth about me.

I love Snickers bars candy.

And any chance that I get I always go and buy one.

All right, so I went in the store,

I got my Snickers bar.

I'm beginning to leave the store and in the store

there were two police officers that came in.

They were two white young men

in their mid-20s probably.

I saw them and I just moved faster toward the door.

As I put my hand on the door to open it, I heard, "Hello?"

Now, I was the only person in the store,

but I wasn't certain that I actually had heard them say this

and I just continue to move on.

And then, he said it again, "Hello?"

And I recognized he was talking to me.

My heart rate began to go up a little bit.

Why is he talking to me?

What did I do wrong?

Did I actually pay for that Snickers bar?

And then just as fast

as my hand is on that bar, I started remembering

a whole bunch of stories in my life.

Decades and decades ago when my own parents said to us,

my brother and me,

"If you are around the police, be careful."

I also remembered when I was maybe seven or eight years old,

my mother and I were in a store and I said to my mother,

"I'm thirsty."

And she said, "You can wait."

And I sent it to her again, "I'm thirsty."

And she said, "You can wait."

Now, this made no sense to me because right in front of me

there were two water fountains.

They were right next to each other.

And above each one of them there was a sign.

There was a sign that said "white" over one

and a sign that said "colored" over the other.

And right next to those water fountains,

there was a white policeman that was standing there.

My mother looked at the water fountains.

She looked at the signs.

She looked at the police officer.

She looked at me and she said, "No, you can wait."

At that time, whenever we went on a family trip,

my mother always packed food and she packed a Thermos of water.

She packed water because she never wanted us to have

the experience of needing to drink from the

colored water fountain.

Because the colored water fountain was always

dirty and rusty,

as opposed to the white water fountain,

which was clean and shiny.

My mother reacted to the water fountains,

and she reacted to the policeman,

because she knew how that policeman might act

if her son, me, went to the wrong water fountain

and drank out of it.

As I found myself still standing in that store,

holding onto that handlebar,

I was not certain about what was going to happen,

but I was finding that my heart rate was increasing.

I turned around very slowly, I acknowledged him,

and he said to me,

"Is your name Harold Cox?"

This pushed me even further.

My heart rate went even higher.

I was beginning to think, "How does he know my name?"

And then he said to me,

"My mother used to work in the same office that you did,

and my name is John Thomas."

And then, instantly, I remember this kid.

I remembered when he used to come to our office.

He was, I don't know, maybe 11, 12, 13 years old.

He used to come, like lots of other kids.

Truth is, I don't remember that much about him,

but his mother used to always talk about him.

So I felt like I knew him very well.

And now I'm having to struggle with

trying to remember John the kid and John the man

who is now a police officer.

I have been taught in my life to be cautious

around police officers,

and this is just not working for me so well.

And at that moment we began to have

a very awkward conversation.

He wanted to know more about what I was doing.

I asked him about his mother.

And the whole time I was just thinking,

"I wanna leave."

And eventually I did.

I went back out to my car and I continued to think about

this very strange conversation that I had just had.

And now, five years later,

I am still thinking about that conversation,

and I hope that some day,

seriously, I hope some day

I will be able to have a conversation with John

where I get to say what happened to me

as a Black man with lots of fancy titles

and a lot of gray hair.

What happened to me when I felt nervous, and a little panicky,

in being around a white police officer.

Because, in the 21st century,

it makes no sense that anybody

would feel angst about buying a Snickers bar.

MHLABA-ADEBO: My name is U-Meleni Mhlaba-Adebo.

I am a performance artist.

I am a poet, a singer, an actress, and an educator.

I am originally from Zimbabwe and I currently live in Boston.

So I understand that you've been known to say

that writing is food for the soul.

Do you believe that storytelling is also food for the soul?

You know, I remember going to my grandmother's house,

and she would be telling stories at night, you know,

in the fire light.

And I think it's really beautiful to be able to witness,

to learn not only the history,

but also the things that are really important

for us for each generation.

'Cause I think stories are really important for that.

So, across all of your art forms,

you have a distinct and strong voice.

How did you find your voice?

Writing has always been my compass, my saving grace,

my medicine.

I started writing when I was a little girl,

and I think for me I discovered

writing to be a way to free myself

and to dream my dreams into reality through the words.

I'm sitting on a porch in Dorchester

with one of my best friends, Jen.

She's white, I'm Black.

Our kids are both nine years old.

They are besties.

They met when they were one and a half chasing a cat,

as one does, when they're young.

They have a beautiful friendship unencumbered by color.

Jen and I barter mom stories.

The usual--

endless Zoom meetings, remote learning,

and its impact on our kids, COVID and the rates climbing,

inability to see our friends and family.

The protests, the anger, the frustration.

It's all too much.

The weight of it all.

It's June 2020, and it's been a hell of a month,

a hell of a year.

I think to myself, "Maybe we should do something."

I know that there are protests happening,

Black Lives Matter protests that are happening,

because of the George Floyd killings,

and we want to be involved,

but we're afraid because of COVID

that there are too many people.

But what can we do for our kids who can feel this?

And then we think, "How about we do a sidewalk kids protest?"

Maybe this will be an opportunity for them

to talk about their feelings, our kids, and maybe it will be

an opportunity for us as well.

Later that night, I tell my son,

"Hey, you know what we're doing?"

And he's like, "Oh, Mom, what are you doing this time?"

I say, "We're planning a sidewalk kids protest.

What do you think?"

He gets excited.

He starts writing a list of names of friends

that he can invite, and I tell him to slow down.

We have to keep our numbers low.

It's now Thursday.

It's about noon.

I'm still doing some work from home.

My husband is at work as well.

My son has taken a break from remote learning.

He's playingRoblox.

I keep my phone on me at all times because my family

is all over the world--

Zimbabwe, South Africa, Nigeria, Germany.

I see that there's a missed call from my father.

So, I call because I'm a little bit frantic.

You see, my mother has been sick.

She has cancer and her health is failing.

So I want to get updates.

I call my dad and he says to me, "Your mother is gone."

Those four words were so hollow.

I didn't know what to do.

I didn't know how to feel.

I don't have time to feel.

My priority right now is my son.

And the thing is, I can't even leave the country.

I can't go home to Zimbabwe to be with my family

to grieve, to cry.

It's now Friday.

It's 9:00 in the morning.

It is the day of the sidewalk kids protest

but I have to tell my son some terrible news.

And I tell my son, "You know how Gogo was sick?

Grandma was sick in Zimbabwe."

My son nods quietly.

I continue, "I'm sorry to tell you,

but she passed away yesterday."

My son comes towards me, and we embrace, and we cry.

And he whispers in my ear, as he rubs my back,

"It's okay, Mommy, just let it out.

Just let it out."

It's 3:00 in the afternoon and I remind my son that his friends

are gonna be here,

that the sidewalk kids protest is happening, you know,

and Black lives do matter.

We're going to do something.

We're going to go out there.

My son helps me write "sidewalk kids protest" in chalk.

"Black lives matter."

Jen and Mona come bouncing down.

It's about 3:00 now.

The kids almost embrace, and they stop short--

side effects of COVID.

The sun is smiling.

A sea of kids start coming, ages two to nine,

with their parents carrying water bottles, and masks,

and t-shirts, and pre-made posters.

My son's "We Love George" poster, written in purple

the night before with a red heart,

is leaning against the black gates.

Jen tells them why we're here.

She says, "We're here because we want to stand up for injustice.

"We're here because someone killed George Floyd.

"Because the police killed George Floyd,

"and that's not okay.

"Because the police killed Breonna Taylor

and that's not okay."

As we're chanting, my son leads the chants,

"Black lives matter.

"Black lives matter.

Justice for all."

"We love George," he says as the kids shout with him in unison.

Passersby look and wave, some of them clapping,

there are cars that are honking waiting for the lights

to turn green, honking in solidarity with our kids.

It's a beautiful and painful moment to recognize

that the kids, our kids, have to be like this,

standing up for justice.

What have we done?

I go inside, I get a bowl of instruments--

shakers and congas.

I'm going to lead us in a song to close out the protest.

The song that I'm going to offer is "Hama Maoko,"

a phrase that my mother taught me about

self-determination and community.

I teach them the song, they repeat it after me.

♪ Hama

♪ Hama

♪ Maoko

♪ Maoko.

It's a beautiful moment.

Just as that moment finishes,

the police appear out of nowhere right in front of us.

Kids scatter like leaves to the back of the building.

I am frozen.

There is tension in the air.

My friends Jen and Kama leap in front of me,

creating a barrier between the police and I,

as they walk through our courtyard.

Apparently they're here because someone has fallen.

But the kids are running away.

The kids are scared,

and I hear one of them say, "I don't want to die today.

I don't want to die today."

The police leave, the kids come back.

We have to calm them down and tell them that they're okay.

That they are loved.

That they matter.

That the police were here to help someone.

It's later that night I asked my son what he thought about

the sidewalk kids protest.

How did he feel?

He says he thinks Gogo would be proud,

that we stood up for injustice, that Black lives matter.

For me, I wanted to give my son back his power.

I wanted to give my son back his power because

I constantly want to make sure that he knows

that he is much bigger than the confines of the definitions

of a Black boy that America places on him, that he matters.

And I remembered my mother...

♪ Hama

♪ Hama

♪ Maoko

♪ Maoko.

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