Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Coming to the Venue...

A Conversation About Race
Among Poets

 All last year and into this winter I kept reading and hearing in the media and elsewhere that America needs to have a National Conversation About Race.
            I was part of such a conversation several years ago, on a local level. It was called Norfolk (VA) United Facing Race (NUFR), organized and facilitated by Bev Sell, who now runs the Five Points Farm Market on Church St. downtown.
            In that conversation we dug a few layers beneath the veneer of polite society, to the point where I realized there was so much more to talk about. But the six weeks were over. I wished we could have continued that conversation for many more weeks.
            I finally got my chance this year.           
            Poets who frequent the Venue-35 Open Mic in Norfolk, including many of my Acting-for-Poets students and graduates, have strong things to say about race and racism. Some of that was aired in our Venue Voices show last November, when my students surpassed themselves in a moving demonstration of their skills as performance poets.
Maddie Garcia in "Venue Voices"
November, 2014
            But as the stories of police brutality and fatal shootings piled up in the media over the past year and more, I wanted to try facilitating a more ambitious project. I wanted to bring Venue Voices together into a multi-racial conversation about race in honest and fearless poetry, written back and forth in response to each other.
            Some friends advised against it. “No one will ever be honest about race,” my most cynical friend said.
            But I stubbornly plunged ahead anyway. In late January I began a workshop which, over the course of a couple of months, I hoped would produce enough material good enough to invite the public in to hear it.
            A lot of poets said they liked the idea, but in the end only five saw the project through to its final weeks. Six, if you count me.
            They are Betty Davis, Norfolk native and retired police officer descended from slaves; Maddie Garcia, Dominican descendant of white, black, and indigenous races; Jack Callan, of pure Irish descent, who recently retired as vice president of the Poetry Society of Virginia;  C.J.Xpression, a Venue-35 poet of Cherokee-Irish-Italian ancestry, and Judith Stevens, a native of the rural South and active member of the Edgar Cayce Association for Research and Enlightenment.
            My own background is in the rural North, son of a liberal mother, and white as vanilla except in the summer when I burn my face to disguise my race.
C.J.Xpression in "Venue Voices"
November, 2014

            We six, on May 15 and 16, will perform “A Conversation About Race Among Poets,” a staged reading at The Venue on 35th. After each show, we’ll invite audience members to add their own thoughts to the Conversation by responding to what they've seen and heard.
            It should be lively. We are a bit of a cantankerous bunch, though we agree on many things. We all condemn racism. We all realize that prejudice has long run rampant in our society. Every immigrant group has felt it, every minority movement, every new idea.
            But in America there is no question that race prejudice, or racism, is an evil promulgated by whites on all other races but falling particularly heavily throughout our history on African slaves and their present-day descendants.
            These are the people on whose lashed and bleeding backs America’s economic wealth was built, making the American South before the Civil War the acknowledged Cotton King of the world, as I learned in my research for our weekly project meetings.
            And cotton truly was king for Southern white plantation owners and Northern textile magnates, who became fabulously wealthy from the profits of world trade which then trickled down to many white workers but to no black workers. They couldn’t share the wealth because they were property, like horses and mules. However much money Massah made, the slaves got only what they needed to keep them working.
Betty Davis in "Venue Voices"
November, 2014
            To me, that sniffs heavily of karma. White people today, especially those whose  ancestors were in America before the Civil War, are certain to have benefited, directly or indirectly, from the ill-gotten gains of involuntary servitude, usually enforced with violence. Much is owed that has not been paid.
            So it’s an unavoidable conclusion that in America racism starts with whites. As the dominant American race—and for the record, my ancestors are overwhelmingly white—we institutionalized it when we wrote it into our Constitution. John C. Calhoun summed up the white patrician’s position most succinctly in the 1840s, arguing against emancipation. “We have never dreamed of incorporating into our Union any but the Caucasian race,” he said.
            Using this “Calhoun doctrine” as the non-negotiable principle of traditional white male dominance in America, our group covered a range of topics in our meetings—the genocide of Native Americans, the horror of black and brown enslavement, the Civil Rights movement, white privilege and unconscious racism, the meaning of equality, the militarization of police, and the emotions—the anger, fear, hurt, despair, and sorrow—evoked by experiences of race and color prejudice.
            Here’s an edited sample of an exchange which appears in our completed script:

DD: Look through my eyes,
my grandfathers, all,
and see what’s become
of the world you've passed on,
from the street to the suites
of police-state reprisal.

JUDITH: Intolerance—
an ugly word that curls the tongue.
In Southern forests, bodies hung....

BETTY: The freedom of my heart has been denied for so long.
That is why I could never love in an earthbound way.

MADDIE: The time will come we will be so mixed
there will be no need to check ourselves into a box.

JACK: The last poets line up
To save America.
It’s not about black and white
It’s the story
And we’ve got to tell it right

CJ: Mental bombs explode,
clearing away gray matter
for thought construction.

            Thought construction—in poetry—is what Venue Voices is all about. Our Conversation About Race will be shared, live at The Venue, on Friday, May 15, and Saturday, May 16, at 8 pm. The Venue is at 631 W. 35th St., Norfolk. Admission is $10, all proceeds to benefit The Venue. Reservations may be made at 757-469-0337.


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