Gatekeepers

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There have been a series of armed robberies in my district and in the city overall. In one effort to address the problem, our mayor, city council member, a BART representative and a police officer recently collaborated with residents and local business owners to hold a town hall meeting. Three of them are men of color and one is a woman of color, which is a first for the 23 plus years during which I’ve lived here.

 

Although I thought the effort was a good thing, I hesitated to attend due to the gate-keeping and profiling that are often expressed at neighborhood meetings. I just didn’t want to have to deal with that behavior on a sunny Saturday afternoon. I did not want to have to work that hard.

 

Despite the fact that I have lived in my current neighborhood for over 23 years, I encounter what I call gate-keeping and profiling far too often by some of my neighbors who think they are being vigilant, I guess, or something like that. The truth is, I don’t know what they think they are doing when they do or say these things that, to me, are ludicrous. I’ve come to the conclusion that they do not think at all. And after my most recent experience with the phenomena, I believe that the behavior is so ingrained in some psyches that it has become a knee jerk reaction.

 

If I hid out in my home and just drove to and from work, I wouldn’t be visible in the neighborhood streets and I might not think that this gate-keeping was strange. I would just consider it more of the same unpleasantness that I have encountered as a black person living in America. However, I do a lot of walking through my neighborhood on a regular basis and have been doing this for years. One would think that this would make me quite visible. A tall black woman with what is now a salt and pepper Afro, long legs and an energetic stride is someone to notice. I’m energetic and I move pretty fast. As the following lines from my poem How it Happens state,

 

What do they see when they look at me?

A dark, amorphous predator?

My pocketed hand grasping a gun?

 

My breasts want to walk

from block to block,

Iris to Eucalyptus,

welcome to rest my thoughts,

in a garden, on a corner.

 

At the end of the neighborhood town hall meeting I met a neighbor I’ll call “Sharon” (not her real name). As I was signing the sign in sheet that was being passed around, I sat down in an empty seat at a table. Sharon happened to be sitting at that table. She asked me whether I lived in the neighborhood. This is a good example of basic gatekeeper behavior. Ask a question of a perfect stranger that focuses on the concept of belonging. Sharon evidently felt that it was her job to question me because I might have wandered into a 2-hour neighborhood meeting on a sunny Saturday afternoon and boldly sat down at a table and written my contact information on a sign-in sheet when I wasn’t supposed to be there. Ask, even if that was what the city council person and mayor had announced and encouraged attendees to do if they wanted to be placed on a mailing list in order to receive information in the future. After all, I probably hadn’t heard them say those things, so she felt she needed to pull my sleeve and set me on the right path. That’s what gatekeepers do, make sure everyone, especially people of color, are on the right path.

 

I turned the interaction around quickly. I answered Sharon in the affirmative, made sure to mention and emphasize the longevity of my tenure in the neighborhood, and I then introduced myself by first name, and asked for her name. Next, I handed the “Do you live in the neighborhood?” question back to Sharon and stepped into the role of gatekeeper. Change in power differential through a double ward off to Sharon, whose excuse, once she awakened somewhat from her trance of privilege and entitlement, was that some of the people at the meeting were business owners and not residents. I didn’t quite get the significance of that distinction, as I guessed that business owners probably were as interested in not becoming victims of armed robberies to the same degree that residents were not interested in becoming victims.

 

I later realized the Sharon was making excuses as she became aware of how her question might have made her sound and/or look. That was interesting to me. Once I had led Sharon to conversational, neighborly civility by modeling it, she remembered that she knew how to appropriately address a stranger at a neighborhood town hall meeting. After all, until our conversation, I was a stranger who was signing a sign in sheet because she was concerned about the neighborhood she lived in and wanted to receive more information. Sharon then began to chat about her dog that she walked in the neighborhood quite often. She described her dog and called her a diva. I laughed and said that I would easily notice a little white dog that acted like a diva. The conversation had become civil because I had worked to ward off the bad mojo encoded in Sharon’s gate keeping.

 

I also had to redirect another attendee whose privilege and entitlement led him to stand next to me, and in a normal voice tone, despite glances from several other attendees, declare that the martial arts demonstration was “bullshit.” And I finally had to tell the martial arts critic that I could not hear, because he decided to start a conversation with another man and ignore our glances and some glares. Once I spoke up he apologized and eventually moved away to another spot in the room.

 

Despite these interactions with the privileged and entitled, the meeting ended up being not as bad as I’d expected it would be. At the end of the meeting, after my conversation with Sharon, I ran into a couple from my yoga class, and had a few minutes to chat with another neighbor who is one of the kindest people I know. What was hopeful about the meeting to me is that our mayor, who is Latinx was there, our city council member had organized the town hall and he is a man of African descent, the martial arts group was moderated by a male martial artist who was multilingual, one of the martial artists who demonstrated safety tactics was a woman, and the police representative was a man of African descent. So, despite Sharon’s gate keeping and the critic’s bad behavior, there were people at the meeting who looked like me and several of them were in leadership roles.

 

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Well-RED at Works/San Jose

 

On Tuesday January 10th I will be featured at Well-RED,  a monthly reading series in San Jose, which is a collaboration between Poetry Center San Jose and Works/San Jose. Works/San Jose is a gallery space, and I very  much look forward to be surrounded by art!

I will be reading with the fine writer Dane Cervine. Poet and writer Robert Pesich is the curator and host. Here is more information:

Works/San Jose

365 South Market Street
downtown San José

on the Market Street edge of
the San José Convention Center

 

Doors open at 6:30pm and performance begins at 7:00pm.
Affordable wine, beer and soda.
Open mic will follow the performance.

Admission: $2 Suggested Donation; No one turned away.

We hope to see you there!

Winter

This evening, the melody to “Winter in America” by Gil Scott-Heron began to play in my head. I found a version on YouTube and I’ve been playing it and listening more intently than I ever have to the lyrics, some of which follow:

“Yeah, and the people know, people know it’s Winter in America

And ain’t nobody fighting cause nobody knows what to save,

Save your soul, Lord knows

From Winter in America”

I’ve been working on a poem about the “elephant in the room,” those things that are large and almost engulfing us, and yet we avoid acknowledging them, talking about them, sharing with one another that we see, feel and hear them. And something about it being “winter in America” and “nobody knows what to save” are anything but an elephant in the room for many of us these days. One of my mentors has encouraged me to keep going, to write the poem. And it’s not an easy poem to write. And this evening, I am once again putting one foot in front of the other, listening to Gil Scott-Heron and writing about that elephant.

Gil Scott-Heron begins the song with these lyrics:

“From the Indians who welcomed the pilgrims
And to the buffalo who once ruled the plains
Like the vultures circling beneath the dark clouds
Looking for the rain
Looking for the rain”

 

 

 

13th Annual Berkeley Poetry Festival at Berkeley City College – May 16th

I am both excited and honored to be one of the featured poets at this annual poetry festival held this year on Saturday May 16th from 11 am – 5 pm at Berkeley City College.

Many thanks to poets Sharon Coleman and MK Chavez for herding the cats and handling publicity.

There will be readings, publishers, poetry books, and lots of hometown pride! You won’t want to miss it.

Poet and activist Rafael Jesus Gonzalez will be honored for a lifetime of poetry and social justice.

The poster is gorgeous, don’t you think?

BPL 2015 Poster 05

Not a new poem for not entirely new situations

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Lizard

Lizard said, “It pays to use camouflage and observe carefully.” His tongue glittered in the light as he spoke and eyed me from the other side of the boulder. He teaches me that stillness pays and moving quickly when necessary is crucial, but the best thing to do in the city or in the country, is to blend in with your surroundings.

Sometimes, men and women in dark uniforms eye me suspiciously. My height, skin color and unisex, loose-fitting clothing are often identical to the description of the person they’re looking for, except that I have breasts. It is dark outside, so they say it is hard for them to tell that I’m not the perpetrator they’re looking for.

 My tongue shoots out in flames, quickly licking the air before the blue uniform in the patrol car sees it. I fold into the brick building on the corner of Alcatraz and Telegraph. My skin turns crumbly reddish brown and I freeze.

My poem “Lizard” appears in the anthology, New Poets of the American West, Many Voices Press, 2010. I thought it appropriate to post it on my blog at this time.

Far too many have not and are not able to blend into their surroundings or do whatever it is that would ensure their  safety and survival as they are hunted, ignored, devalued and stereotyped. This is my offering to them and to all.