March 18, 2018

Listening: Hard, Brave and Necessary

Hearing is one thing. Listening is quite another.

Hearing is noticing the neighbor's dog barking and brushing it off as a nuisance. Listening is noticing the dog barking, and wondering if the dog is barking in alarm at a potential threat to myself or my family.

We hear a lot of facts lately that leave room for us to fine-tune them to a palatable truth. The un-palatable truth is, if I'm being honest, I've heard a lot of facts, but I don't know whether I've done the work of listening to facts.

Listening is work.

It'd be me listening to you and the words you reflexively choose; noticing whether your arms are held close to your person, or whether you lean in toward me as you speak; whether you feel comfort enough to look me in the eye or if you're nervously looking off in the distance. And if I'm really listening, I just might be able to hear what you don't say.

Then ultimately, I'll understand your facts, your truth.

But gray areas cloud facts. Gray areas like my neighborhood, my upbringing, my unique experience walking on this planet might be different from yours, and here's where it gets sticky: you might believe you have facts, and I might believe you have gray areas, and vice-versa.

That's when we stop listening and end up jockeying for a win or a loss.

It's exactly what happened in this country during August of 2014 when the fact was that an 18-year-old Michael Brown died after being shot by a police officer.

I wrote a gray area piece about it because I was really struggling. A few terse reactionary comments on social media in response to sharing the piece let me know that other folks had their own gray areas.

I was deep enough in my grieving that I really don't know if I was even listening back then. And I don't know that the folks with terse comments were listening either. We were hearing, but we weren't doing the hard work of listening.

Until The Flood, a Milwaukee Repertory Theater production gave me the opportunity to experience -- to listen -- to facts including 911 calls, viewpoints from interviewed Missouri residents no matter how plain or disturbingly raw.

It's been almost a week since I've seen Until The Flood, and even knowing the facts and hearing the gray areas of opinion, the only answer I walked away with was that I need to hear less and listen more.

Listening isn't just hard, it's brave...and it really can move us toward peace and understanding.

*Until the Flood is playing now and runs through April 22nd
Some shows begin with a moderated QandA and post-show audience talk-back/discussions*

Sgt. Delmar Williams is a Sergeant in the Milwaukee Police Department. He shared a 5 minute response to Dael Orlandersmith’s Until the Flood. This response is just one of many that are sharing their thoughts on the subject. To hear all of the responses, go to

February 3, 2018

Everybody's Got an Old Faithful

Well, I'm a new kid, I'm just comin' up. A lot a rappers think that I can't tear it up, but I'mma show 'em, and ignore 'em...

I was lost in the middle of throwback bliss perhaps induced by a menthol bubble bath when my daughter, who was in the basement doing her workout during this too-brief minute of sillyness and relaxation, came upstairs and threw a wrench in it all: MOM, THE BASEMENT TOILET IS OVERFLOWING!!!

My head and body's towel-wrap along with my rapping was interrupted. I sprang out of my makeshift sauna down the stairs to find that, sure enough, our basement toilet was springing like Old Faithful.

Then a funny thing happened.

The rapping in my head stopped, and the water seemed to gurgle in slow-motion. The water was going to keep on doing what it was going to do and there was nothing I could do to stop it.

I was helpless, and it felt okay.

You know what? Get all the towels out of the linen cabinet and we're just gonna soak it up.

My daughter looked puzzled. Like...even the good towels?

Even the good towels. We'll just throw 'em in the washing machine right away. The most we can do is the most we can do. Know what I mean?

She nodded, disappeared and came back with every towel in the linen cabinet that we bought and or inherited. By that time, Old Faithful reneged on its faithfulness and stopped its gurgling. All we had to do was sop up its water.

Later, my husband returned from his Boy's Night Out to find...well, what happened. He called a plumber thereafter and explained Old Faithful's faithfulness had something to do with a an external drain that had, like many post-WWII homes in our neighborhood, too much stuff to keep in any longer.

That's when my mother's voice rang back to a mysterious angst-ridden teenaged me who wouldn't talk about angst-inducing stuff:

I don't know what's going on honey, but I do know there's more room out than there is in.

Simply put, a body can't have too much stuff stuffed inside. There's just too little room inside a body for all that stuff. Overstuffing inside is the cause of a lot of Old Faithfuls in national parks on the outside and a lot of personal geysers on the inside.

The thought of me rapping Rob Base and DeeJay EZ Rock with my head and body wrapped in a towel, throwing towels -- good ones or otherwise -- every which way, is funny. It really was and still is.

The part that isn't funny is the haunting of stuff we keep in: resentment, anger, unforgiveness, insecurity, bias, regret, grief and a whole host of wouldas shouldas couldas.

Okay, maybe it's not everyone -- maybe it's just me and the stuff I keep in.

On second thought, maybe it really is we. A quick look at the headlines and polls will leave any sane person thinking that everyone in the U.S. is haunted by ghosts of our collective or individual pasts...or avoiding them.

Either way, everything eventually finds its way out. There is, after all, more room out than there is in.

January 15, 2018

This Too, is MLK

Years ago, I was watching the scene in the movie X when Malcolm's mentor greets him by saying Assalamu alaikum, and in my head, I responded Alaikum assalaam.

WHERE DID THAT COME FROM? I asked myself. (FYI, the phrases are Arabic greetings often used by Muslims, meaning Peace be upon you and Unto you peace.)

I certainly wasn't a closeted Muslim, in fact I grew up a card-carrying-dual-faith Protestant of Baptist and Lutheran traditions. On rides to church, my family listened to WNOV -- a black-owned radio station whose regular Sunday rotation included Gospel music and sermon excerpts.

Usually in the time it took for us to get from home to church, the gospel music and sermons wound down, and gave way to programming from the Nation of Islam which always began with Assalamuu alakum and Alakum assalaam. That's all we heard. But it stuck with me.

Looking back, I'm realizing how forward-thinking it was of this radio station to make space that represented black people in all their layers and all their faiths whether Baptist, C.O.G.I.C., A.M.E. and yes, even Muslim.

Today is Martin Luther King , Jr. Day, and like every year on MLK day, I'm wincing at all the hypotheticals being thrown around "If Dr. King was here today, he'd agree with a law and order criminal justice response" or "If Dr. King was here today, he'd support stopping chain immigration" or "If Dr. King was here today, he'd respect the flag, our troops and our country" and on it goes.

Haven't heard the MLK of 2018 perverted and twisted yet? Give it a minute. I guarantee you will.

Then again maybe you won't. For sure, you'll see much of the hope that Dr. King espoused. Beautiful quotes from his I Have A Dream speech will flow freely today. In fact, our current president has already videotaped a hollow commemorative message referring to it.

Instead, I want to hear the multi-layered, human MLK today, I want to hear his commanding oration, the congregation's response when he talked about his daughter's wish to go to an amusement park and his heartbreaking, but hopeful explanation to her of why she couldn't.

Thanks to WNOV, I'd heard that sermon countless times on our way to church. I always liked it, but at the time didn't know it originated from one of his most prolific writings Letters From A Birmingham Jail.

The whole of the Letter's text parallels an MLK that probably won't be celebrated or quoted today. He speaks with spirit, love, but also exhaustion, exasperation and judgement at the country's inability to understand reasons for black people's unrest, as well as the complicity of white Americans who knew things were wrong but chose to keep silent.

This parallel MLK is the one I need to hear from and celebrate today. Like him, I'm exhausted and exasperated...but still hopeful.

So I guess the only wish, the only greeting I can give on this day is Alaikum assalaam...anyway.

January 7, 2018

The Words...and Her Spirit

Think about the words...what are they saying? What are they saying to you?

I hadn't really thought about the words to the song. All I knew is that I couldn't sing like my sister -- my one and only sister -- a ridiculously AMAZING singer -- who was called upon to sing The National Anthem when then Presidential Candidate Jesse Jackson came to town.

Words? What words?

Juniors in high school who have been handed a Christmas solo to sing in the annual concert don't think about words to the song. They only think about hitting that astronomically high high note, or if a packed gym full of people would think that for once in her life, this dork wouldn't look like such a dork.

At least I did.

That is, until my mom, the original singer, church minister of music and leader of traveling Gospel music group (who, by the way, sang "on program" with Martin Luther King, Sam Cooke & the Soul Stirrers and James Cleveland) said I should.

So I did. She listened for my breathing, phrasing and how, and if I, interpreted the words. We practiced for weeks and then she sent me off for opening night. She'd done everything she could do. She'd be in the audience and I'd be there on stage. By myself. Heeding her advice...or not.

One thousand years later, my daughter texts to say that she's thinking about auditioning for Concert Choir. I text back It's just an audition...why the heck not? She's an artistic, musical kid and plays an instrument, but the singing thing? She's done it un-enthusiastically, unless the songs were by One Direction or K-Pop bands.

Still...I knew she could sing. I mean, her grandmother, her aunt, her uncles both play multiple instruments and sing. The girl's got it in her DNA, right?

So...what if you let me hear your audition song? I might be able to help.
MOM. That makes me totally nervous.
You do remember I've bathed you, seen everything and taught you your first song, right?
I know...but MOM.

Then I told her about the coaching her Grandma GeeGee did a thousand years earlier and how clueless and nervous I was when she coached me.

Next thing I know, we're in the basement and she's singing. To Me.

From someplace somewhere deep inside, I hear myself saying What are the words? Are you listening to the words? Think about what they mean and what you're saying and who you're saying those words to. Then later, Don't hold back...don't be afraid of someone hearing you.

You know that story about the Apostle Paul when his sight was restored after being struck blind, and scales fell from his eyes? There were no scales, but she changed in that moment.

I guess that's the whole point of being in choir, isn't it? So you can be heard, huh?
Pretty much.

She kept singing to me, soon my arms were reflexively flailing like a conductor soaring in an angelic descant, and guttural whispers were escaping with YES and HIT IT...and ONE MORE TIME. I was beside myself, and still am.

As much I want to be with her in the room when she auditions, I know I can't. It's got to be her on her own and me in an audience someplace else waiting to hear how it goes.

She did well and I told her so.

You're not just saying all this like moms do, or are you being unbiased?

I knew my mom really well. And after hearing you sing? You're definitely her granddaughter.

I hope I captured a little bit of her spirit.