What happens when a room no longer reflects the race you identify with? Poetry is created, and common ground struck.
I was one of the five African-American people, among a dozen Caucasians, attending one of Jaki Shelton Green’s powerful SistaWRITE writing workshops at the L Room Bed and Breakfast on Durham’s West Geer Street.
We were instructed to write a poem about the workshop room from two perspectives: a voice of judgment and a voice of observation.
A white woman with a power bob haircut shared how she felt the decor in the room didn’t reflect her skin color, her race.
The majority of images on the bright yellow walls were of accomplished black women: Mahalia Jackson, Maxine Waters, Bessie Smith, First Lady Michelle Obama, Billie Holiday, Alice Walker, and then two photos with quotes by Audrey Hepburn and Margaret Thatcher.
My attention returned to the rounded shoulders of the woman with the power haircut. She pointed her nose at the parted binding of her notebook, twitched her gaze and described feeling that she “didn’t belong …wasn’t as unique or magnificent in stature as the accomplished African-American women on the walls and in the seats around the room.”
I knew this feeling she described all too well.
Her discomfort was a pebble in the show compared to the boulder that props my heel when I enter most establishments in the Triangle.
An uneasy reminder that my ethnic group seemingly hasn’t contributed much worth painting about, especially in the town of Chapel Hill I’ve called home for a decade.
Recently my son and I attended a seminar at the UNC’s George Watts Hill Alumni Center. In the lecture hall we were greeted by tall wooden columns and a hall of paintings with Caucasians. Nearby, an elderly black man was working on setting up audio, opening the giraffe-high curtains, and arranging the breakfast food for guests.
He fluttered like a sparrow from tree branch to tree branch. Sure, beautiful and strong. Yet, there was not one painting of him or his ancestors adorning that hallway. Not even a name tag on his chest as he worked, disappearing behind the scenes.
It was only when I traveled to another continent that I was able to witness open adoration of people who “looked like me.”
In 2009, I found that adoration in the rain forest of Cameroon, Africa, where we were the omnipresent. Where we mattered.
There I met my maternal Tikar tribe and was bestowed the title Princess Bekang (Boomerang), in the chiefdom of N’ditam Tikar.
When I tried to buy bottled water from a roadside vendor with a U.S. dollar, the vendor said, “White man face, no good here. Black face, only good here.”
Upon exchanging my “bad money for good money,” I noticed that it featured scenic artwork of black people teaching, farming, conducting business. African women and men with natural hairstyles. Valuable humans. Alive. Determined. Hopeful people.
These beautiful images weren’t just on the currency. They adorned coffee canteens, toilet tissue packaging, billboards, commercials, shopping bags. Every product featured sun-kissed skin, bright smiles, proud wide noses, and big beautiful eyes.
I realized this may be the closest I’d ever get to experience that unspoken steady dose of privilege that white people receive daily. I basked in that newness.
When I returned home to Chapel Hill, I worked hard to find the deep cultural connections I’d experienced in Africa.
Luckily for me, I found places in Durham proud of African-American accomplishments. The late Sharon Elliot-Bynum’s Healing with CAARE, The Vegan Flava Cafe, The L Room Bed & Breakfast, Hayti Heritage Center, and Jaki Shelton Green’s regional SistaWRITE retreats are just a few of the places that help restore my sense of belonging.
The next time you’re walking about any city or town be mindful of how welcomed you might feel and yet someone else may feel unwelcomed. Yes, all our walls talk. #justanotherwayoflookingatthings
Anita Woodley is founder and president of Spark Inner-Action, a nonprofit promoting health education, emotional wellbeing, and stronger lifestyle choices through improv performances/presentations to high risk communities. Contact her at www.anitawoodley.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, or 919-914-0104.
Meet Anita Woodley
Anita Woodley will perform her one-woman show, “Bucking The Medical & Mental Bull: the Black male experience with the health care system in Durham,” at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 21, at Stanford L. Warren Library, 1201 Fayetteville St. in Durham. Free. Watch the trailer at http://www.anitawoodley.com/bucking-the-bull/
Anita will also be facilitating a free monthly “Forgiveness Guided Visualization” sessions at 7 p.m. Wednesdays Jan. 27, Feb. 17, March 30, April 27 and May 25 at at the Vegan Flava Cafe, 4125 Durham-Chapel Hill Blvd in Durham. Everyone is welcome.