From her soon come autobiography “UNBELTED”

In 1971 my essay, “Today I Feel Like I Am Somebody,” was published by the New York Times in their drama section. In that essay I wrote of my growing years on the South Side of Chicago and of the ghetto frustration violence there. In my twenties I left Chicago and traveled the world as a performing artist with the Katherine Dunham Company of dancers, singers and musicians. In New York City I focused all of my energies on building a career in theater as a dancer, actor, recording/performing artist, poet and author. All of these gifts and skills are needed and had to be honed to survive in the business. My time was spent thinking about my artistic growth but little on my personal growth, on who I was as a person, or on how I came to be who I was.

But, that door was opened one day when I visited Chicago to do a book signing for my book The Shimmershine Queens at a South Side bookstore and was reminded there of my growing up years and what had caused me to be in a state of such constriction in my youth.

Some of my St. Anselms elementary school classmates were at the bookstore to welcome me. They told me, “You were always so quiet back then, so still”. I agreed and we laughed together about my quietness, my stillness back then.

That visit to the book signing in Chicago and the meeting of my classmates there, caused memories to almost erupt in me. Yes, I was quiet back then however, there was nothing humorous or quiet or still about my childhood. I was in shock for most of it. I was stilled and quieted into silence by what I saw, felt and heard around me.

Back then, my neighborhood was frequently referred to as one of the many “bucket of blood” neighborhoods in America’s ‘black belted-in African American communities. Not as deadly as what is happening there today but, deadly. I know my neighborhood. I know that rootless, wandering, uninspiring, confusing, uninformed, energy that surrounds, frightens and drives many of those who live there today into violence. They are the same energies that once surrounded, frightened and drove me. After examining my youth, I wondered why I had not become a casualty. After thinking it through, it became clear to me that we are all living in a world of ‘Hand Me Downs.” Environmental Hand Me Downs, constructive and destructive, that formed and reform the world we are born into. And the genetic, constructive and destructive inborn Hand Me Downs in our DNA inherited from our ancestors and added to by each of us in our lifetime. I came to the conclusion that we are all in a war between those Hand Me Downs. Our coming out the victor depends on how we handle both.

How did I not become a statistic, a causality of the destructive Hand Me Down world I was born into? I acknowledge the wounds I still carry. But I am here, have not taken anyone else out and except for being arrested for protesting against injustice, have not seen the inside of a police station. What was my destructive ‘handed down’ environment? what caused me to be so quiet and still that my old school mates remembered those characteristics about me more than anything else?

Let me share with you what I discovered.

Since my earliest days as a child being fed in a high chair I have witnessed, felt and heard the impact of violence (of imbalance) around me. My response was to retreat into myself. It wasn’t until the age of fourteen that I could begin to break my stillness, my silence and ask why the anger, why the low self-esteem.
Like today’s Chicago south side youth I too held my breath when I heard gun shots pow powing around me, saw muzzle flashes, death.

I was a witness.

As I stood still watching, feeling their anger and frustration as many of my neighbors seeing the visions of their dreams fade and dim to out, scream at each other, in the street, in their homes and shout in their churches about their lost dreams, about their own inability to build a better life in Chicago then the one they fled from in the South. I saw, heard, felt them strike out argue for all to hear about how “yea, I don’t understand ‘nothin’ no more” or how to get a hold on and fight for the controlling racist systems in the North that muted their protest and limited their rise.

Yes I was quiet but my eight year old body shook one night as I stood behind adults and stretched to look between them down at the blood bubbling through the burning shirt of a dying gun shot man breathing his last breath. There was more, so much more. I did not like what I saw and felt. I did not understand why it was as it was. I wanted to do something to make life better for my family, my friends, my neighbors, loving people who worked hard when they had a job, who loved their children and urged them to “do better” for themselves, for the world.

My father again and again told us to “do better.” Mama encouraged us to find out why “a thing was as it was.” But, I did not know where to start or how. Until this happened:

The year was 1948 and the Chicago Sun newspaper had just merged with the Chicago Daily Times. To introduce their new newspaper the Chicago Sun Times and, to broaden their readership they offered to any child who sold fifteen subscriptions to the new newspaper a Schwinn or a J.C. Higgens bicycle.

Well, my family’s budget could not cover the cost of the bicycle, therefore, being a young girl of fourteen years who was desperately searching for some “do better news” and some answers from somewhere, I got busy and sold more then fifteen subscriptions to the new newspaper.

My J.C. Higgens arrived and there I was on a hot Chicago afternoon pumping its peddles as if my life depended on it, speeding through Washington Park, enjoying my new found feeling of release and discovery, discovery beginning with me.

I believe I was traveling somewhere around 55th Street and South Park when I heard something. It stopped me, drew me to it. I turned around trying to hear what direction the sound was coming from. When it became clear where, I sped towards it across the grass to what i discovered was a field house in the park. That was where the sound was coming from. It was the sound I later learned of African drums.

When I stepped across the threshold into that Chicago South Side field house in the park I was stepping into, for me, a mind spinning world of cultural information, of concepts, discipline, discernment, mental focus and spiritual bonding. All called by that clap of drum rhythm thunder that did not frighten me but put me into a peaceful place, I walked into a room of youth my age, dancing movements and rhythms that I felt deeply. I somehow knew them so, I respectfully claimed them as they had claimed me. I joined the class and opened the door to more discovery days I knew would come.

I was in my second year at Englewood High School then. After school I went to work as a stock girl at Bonds Clothing Store. The salary I earned there paid my school expenses and for two pairs of shorts and shirts like the other dancers wore in my new field house dance classes.

After a short time the teachers there advised me to take more advanced classes, to go downtown to study with a teacher names Jimmy Payne who taught, as they did what was then called ‘primitive’ dance but, what I learned was actually bits and pieces of the dances enslaved Africans brought to America and re-contextualized into what became Black Dance in America. (See my article in Black Collegian Magazine, Oct., Nov. 1980)

In Jimmy Payne’s classes these bits and pieces were combined with whole dances and songs from Haiti, Brazil, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Cuba, Porto Rico, dances brought to America/Chicago by migrants from those countries come to make life better.

A Hand Me Down From My Grandmother.

I was maybe eight years old when I heard my grandmother and her friend say these things about me.

Grandma; “She ah old head. Mina, (that’s what she called me.) um hum, she know sumum and hear things too.”

Grandma’s friend; “You think so? That’s how come she acts like that?”

Grandma; “um hum, Mina be watchin’ all da time. She one of dem churin that see thangs. She gon talk about it too. Watch.”

Grandma’s friend; “Think so?”

Grandma; “can’t you see it? She been here befo. She got ways, cause she got somethin’ to do, somethin’ to say.”

Yes, I do have “ways” and yes, I felt I had something to say, to do but, I didn’t know what or how or where or when to say it or do it. Until I took what I believe to have been an ancestral, spiritual, gift that bicycle ride to the field house in Washington Park. Then, in that place it all came together. Yes, in that field house in Washington Park, an environmental hand me down, I discovered I had gifts as an artist, those ancestral spiritual DNA hand me downs, and I decided I would use my gifts and my environment to make my community and the world better.

I did it.

Others have done it.

You can do it.

Find your bicycle and ride it as if your life

depends on on it.

It does.

That’s, life.