Monday, December 28, 2009

Joan Morgan: A conversation on hip hop journalism, sexism and the term African American

Joan Morgan is one of hip hop journalism's prized pioneers and celebrated culture critics. Her work explores culture and sexism. She wrote the black feminist reader "When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost." Her latest essay “Black Like Barack” is featured in the book “The Speech: Race and Barack Obama's “A More Perfect Union.” A woman of Jamaican heritage, she was raised in New York.

YLW: Your book "When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost" continues to be a popular feminist reader. Are you surprised that nearly a decade after the release it's still relevant?

JM: I would hope that it wouldn't be as relevant and that we would have moved away from some of the issues that the book grappled with. It's probably more relevant on a mass scale then it was when it was initially published. I'm still surprised when I get a 22-year old who says I love your book. In some ways it has actually gotten worse.

YLW: What's gotten worse? Are you referring to hip hop?

JM: When I wrote "Chickenheads" there was a much greater range of women in the music and a greater presence of the female voice. You don't have that now. That lack of representation is a problem. There has been a narrowing of the type of hip hop and no real improvement in the level of sexism and misogyny in the music. If you were conflicted before you are more discouraged now. I talk to women now who don't even feel they have a place in the culture. At the time, I felt that it was as much mine as anyone else's.

YLW: You are a pioneer in hip hop journalism. What are your thoughts on the evolution of the field?

JM: When I started writing there was no hip hop journalism. I remember when someone came up to me and Kevin Powell and said I want to be like you, I want to be a hip hop journalist. We were writers. We weren't aspiring to be hip hop journalist. I think the evolution is a good thing but no one was trying to establish that as a genre. We were pioneers. We grew into the title and learned how to work with it. I think there's a great body of work from 79' to the late 90s of important works by a group of important writers who documented the culture. That said, I don't see a lot of hip hop journalism these days. It's much more about celebrity culture.

YLW: How do you define hip hop journalism?

JM: Hip hop journalism is committed to writing about hip hop culture but unafraid to criticize the culture, the artist, and to defend it. Hip hop was not glamorous when I started. There was no glory. If you wrote about hip hop, you were in a grimy club at 1 am in the morning. There was no car service. But when it became this multi-million dollar machine all that changed.

Writers weren't afraid to do criticism. Now music writing is a part of celebrity culture. Everyone wants to be down. They don't want to harm a relationship with the artist, label, advertisers. It limits the form of writing. In the past, writers were committed to being honest and to being critical.

I think hip hop journalism was really born in a certain time period and out of a real desire to fight for a place and a context for the music. And it was written by people who were from that culture. So when those stories were calculated and were told, it was written by people who were a part of the culture.

YLW: Are you happy with hip hop's growth into this multi-million dollar enterprise?

JM: Yes and no. I'm a late 70s baby. I'm a child of hip hop. I never had the expectation that it would live forever. I still remember being completely shocked when I heard a rap song on the radio. I saw it make the journey from the hood to where it is now. I never operated with the 'oh this could last forever' mentality. In many ways we were just kids who didn't realize the enormous potential it had to capture the world's imagination. In that respect it has far exceeded my expectations.

On the other level, I'm disappointed in the level of creativity. I just don't like it. To be fair, I think the production is better. You could argue that linguistically the skill level has far surpassed “ a hip hop a hippee, etc” and you have an artist like Jay-Z who keeps evolving. But I just don't think the music is that good.

YLW: What are your thoughts on writing these days? Do you follow any emerging music writers?

JM: I remember Kevin Powell's answer to that kid who asked how do you become a hip hop journalist and he said read . . . read Toni Morrison. James Baldwin. That' s one of the disadvantages of the blogosphere and print media. Anyone and their mother can call themselves a writer now because they have a blog. Every single piece we wrote back then was like going to school because your editors were kicking your ass. I read stories today and it feels like I'm reading a bio. The publicist could have written it. It's the machine behind it. Before as a hip hop journalist I could say I have to be alone with this person for 3 days. You can't do that anymore.

YLW: How do women reconcile with some of the sexism in popular culture?

JM: I think women are equally conflicted with it. We still live in a society where you can have instant celebrity by sleeping with Tiger Woods and selling your story to the media. You can be a video vixen and your story can get a million dollar book advance, where a hip hop journalist isn't going to see that kind of money.

YLW: You don't use the term African American. You prefer black. Why?

JM: I look in the mirror and see that I'm a black woman and see our commonalities but I do have a cultural experience that is different from all of my friends who are African American. I don't allow people to introduce me as an African American writer because people make assumptions. They make assumptions about my culture that aren't bad, they're just false. I'm from a group of very proud Jamaicans and that should be honored.

When I think post black, I hope there's an understanding that everyone who is black in America doesn't share the same background and experience. Our diversity should be embraced. When people use African American they mean the specific experience of being black and being a descendant of southern slaves, which is a really important part of the black experience in America, but it's not the only narrative.

YLW: Don't people take issue with you not calling yourself African American?

JM: All the time. I just applied to grad school to do my dissertation on it. I used to not care. I didn't think it was a big enough deal. Then I did my first book signing and my entire Jamaican family was in Barnes and Noble. My husband at the time, his family is from Jamaica and Tobago, so our child is completely of Caribbean and American decent. and from that he's a descendant of Jamaican and Chinese ancestry. At the reading, I was introduced as an African American writer and to my family that was a complete erasure of them.

YLW: In POST BLACK, I tell a story about trying to explain the nuances between using the term African American and black to an English journalist. He was completely confused.

JM: Black is a diverse experience. Even if you say African American means I have roots in Africa, well, by that definition Charlise Theron is African American. I say I'm black and bi cultural. When I'm in Jamaica, I'm considered to be Jamaican. Unless I speak in patois most don't know I'm from Jamaica. You have to have a definition of black that's more expansive.

We need commonalities that are greater than racism. I don't define myself by what a racist white person sees. So if the definition of African American comes in that I have to erase everything that I was before I came to this country, in the case of most immigrants they just won't embrace that. They just won't sign on. They don't see themselves as African American because we don't focus on our commonalities as black people. But it's not just typical of African Americans, it's an American thing. I've never been to Africa. Hope to go. But you're asking me to skip the whole country that I came from, when Africa embodies all these ethnic experiences, too. We have a lot of work to do. We have to create a narrative that is a little more flexible.

I think there's a responsibility on the part of immigrants as well. If you're moving to America you should learn about the culture here. I majored in African American studies because that was information I wasn't going to know if I wasn't in a classroom. I needed to know the culture of the people I was living with. I also take umbrage with immigrants who feel they don't need to know it. But for real diversity and tolerance you have to embrace one another. My child has a Chinese grandmother who speaks fluent patois. I can't get people to get pass the fact that Jamaica is a multi-ethnic country, too.

YLW: You wrote an essay “Black Like Barack” which ran in the book "The Speech: Race and Barack Obama's "A More Perfect Union." The essay explored attitudes by those who questioned the President's blackness during the campaign. You essentially said that if Barack's not black, neither are you. I've had the 'you're not really black' conversation recently. It's a strange discussion.

JM: I always love the 'you're not really black' conversation. Who holds the definitive definition on that?

Monday, December 21, 2009

Comic Justice - Interview with Marvel Comics Illustrator Shawn Martinbrough

Shawn Martinbrough is a comic illustrator for Marvel Comics and former DC Comics illustrator. He's worked on the Batman series and X-Men. His latest project is the 1930s Harlemite and African American superhero Luke Cage. The four part mini series, which is published by Marvel Comics, is written by Mike Benson (Entourage) and Adam Glass (Cold Case). Shawn’s art book How to Draw Noir Comics: The Art and and Technique of Visual Story Telling, which is published by Random House, is used by budding illustrators across the world. A New York City native, Shawn is also featured in Marvelous Color, a show on Marvel's African American superheroes and features original art by artists of color at the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute in New York , 8 W. 58th St. (btn 9th and 10th).

YLW: Many comic book fans today don't know about the African American illustrators or writers in the industry. Do you ever think about how mind blowing this is for some people?

SM: It's never lost on me that I'm a black guy illustrating major characters for major companies. Working in the comic book industry is probably the most level playing field you'll experience as an artist. To the editor looking to hire freelance artists, it's all about A). Can you meet your deadlines? and B). Are you good?

YLW: Marvelous Color is a really exciting show. How did it come about?

SW: The curators, Edgardo and Shirley Miranda-Rodriguez wanted to create a show that featured classic African American superheroes such as Luke Cage, Storm, Black Panther and more contemporary heroes like Blade and War Machine (who will be prominently featured in the highly anticipated Iron man 2 in 2010). More importantly, they wanted the exhibit to feature the artists of color who have illustrated these characters. Many of the artists, myself included, created original artwork for the show.

YLW: Tell me about your experience with DC and Marvel Comics?

SM: I got my degree in illustration in 93' from the School of Visual Arts in New York City but I landed my first work for Marvel Comics in 92'. The biggest thing I did for DC Comics was drawing Batman: Detective Comics. I got that job in 99'.

DC editorial wanted to go in a new direction with Batman. Gotham had suffered this massive earthquake, which destroyed the entire city. The plan for the 2000 relaunch was to jump ahead in time with Gotham City starting fresh. They hired myself and other artists to redesign sections of Gotham City. Creating new neighborhoods in Gotham City was an amazing experience. The writer to whom I was paired with was bestselling author Greg Rucka. Working on Detective Comics was fun but the pressure of drawing 22 pages a month can get tight.

Eventually, I moved to Marvel and did one of their limited series for the X Men. Then I was offered work at DC in their licensing division where I illustrated several projects featuring basketball great Lebron James as a super spy. Over the years I bounced back and forth between Marvel and DC and then I was offered an opportunity to create an art instruction book based upon my high contrast art style. How to Draw Noir Comics: The Art and Technique of Visual Storytelling was published by Watson Guptill/Random House in 2007.

YLW: Graphic novels are really popular now. Why do so many become films?

SM: Comic books are seen by Hollywood as very lucrative intellectual properties because you can franchise and more importantly merchandize. As with a novel, it's an adaptation and there's less risk compared to creating a film based on a completely new concept.

Back in the early 90s, when I was growing up in New York there was one main comic convention, the New York Comic Con. Marvel and DC would have booths there. They'd look at portfolios of aspiring artists and promote upcoming projects. It was well attended but it was mostly for comic book fans. Going into the late 90s, the San Diego Comic Con began to grow in popularity and became more prominent. Now, San Diego has been completely taken over by Hollywood. Variety will cover it. Entertainment Tonight will do a feature. That convention is so popular now it's ridiculous.

YLW: Who is the comic book audience?

SM: I think that the majority of comic book buyers are in their thirties and older. These tend to be people who collected comics as kids. Today, comics appeal to some of the youth but they have so many distractions for entertainment now. Also, many video games have completely ripped off comic books conceptually. As a kid consumer you have to ask yourself, will you buy a $28 worth of comic books (which will amount to about 5 books) or a $30 video game that will give you 60 hours of play?

YLW: How has the approach to writing comic books changed over the years?

SM: The writing has become more sophisticated. However, Marvel and DC are recruiting writers from outside the comic book industry for many new projects. They’re approaching Hollywood screenwriters and bestselling novelists to take a stab at writing new books. These are also people with notoriety that the companies hope can help sell their books beyond the comic book base.

YLW: Are there many African Americans in comics?

SM: There are a number of African Americans working in comics but it's such a faceless industry that you don't know who's black and who's not. A lot of people don't know I'm black. I’m been surprised myself to learn that an artist or writer whose work I admire is a person of color.

YLW: What makes a comic "good"?

SM: Since I'm an artist first I have to respond to the art. No matter how well a comic book is written, I can't read it if it has bad art.

YLW: What's the comic making process?

SM: I'm given a script. I draw it out and send the boards to the company. The inker goes over my work. Digitally they send it to a letterer and a colorist. An editor overseas the entire process from start to finish. Finally the completed book is sent to the printer. Typically I draw and ink my own work so I save them a step.

YLW: What's your work day like?

SM: I work from home in my studio. I go to bed around 3 am and wake up at 9am. Sometimes I get stir crazy when I have a tight deadline but I enjoy drawing and telling stories visually so it’s worth it.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Show "Fat Bitch" and why it's not called "Hot Grits Will Burn Your Tongue": Interview with "Precious" star Erica Watson

Erica Watson is the star of the touring one woman show Fat Bitch a comedic exploration of plus sized women, sexuality and identity. A stand up comic, Watson also stars in the critically acclaimed film Precious.  Fat Bitch ended the Chicago run and will run in New York City early next year.

YLW: You starred in Precious. How did that film handle the plus size issue?

EW: Precious dealt with so much. As far as the plus size issue, a lot of it was unsaid. A lot of the film showed how a person who looks like that is invisible to the world. It shows how as a plus sized girl no one paid attention to her. There's a Precious everywhere. If Rihanna looked like Precious, would we care about Chris Brown hitting her? Do you care about the fat girl and what happens to her? Do we care more about women who are beautiful? When I looked at how the audience reacted, people said damn she's fat, or damn she's ugly.

YLW: I thought she was cute.

EW: I think she's cute, too. I get it too when I'm auditioning. People think Beyonce is so thick. So to see someone like me or Precious who's a straight up 24 on screen takes a while to adjust.

YLW: Isn't a size 12 considered plus size today?

EW: I have friends who are plus size models and they are 10s and 12s. But every woman feels the pressure. Magazine covers have a white woman who's a size zero. The same magazine that effects me effects everyone else. It effects Gabby (Sidebe, star of Precious). It effects us all. Even in the smaller size stores, they change the tags so that a woman who is an eight will think she's a four. I'm so tired of every woman being subjected to that type of stuff. You should be you and feel comfortable in your body no matter what size it is. I'm not one of those comedians who has an issue with skinny girls. Just love you.

YLW: Why did you create "Fat Bitch?"

EW: I've always enjoyed comedic performers like Whoopi Goldberg, John Leguizamo and Sandra Berhard. I loved that they didn't just do stand up. They talked about their lives and allowed their one person shows to be an extension of their stand up. I wanted to talk about pressing issues that were important to me without being in the framework of a set up and a punch line. There was a festival in NYC last year that spotlighted African American comedians who don't fit the stereotype of the Def Jam era. I said let me present my one woman show, and I kept developing it.

YLW:When you do stand up, audiences expect you to perform a Def Jam style comedy routine?

EW: When I perform for black audiences they want to hear certain types of comedy. There's nothing wrong with that. They want to talk about things they feel we all relate to. But it puts undue pressure on comics who can't be themselves because they're trying to fit a mode of what's considered funny to black people. As comedians we're really diverse. When people hear black comic they think urban and I'm not an urban comedian.

YLW: Urban is used to describe black audiences for fashion, music, entertainment. What is an urban comedian?

EW: Urban for me is th new word for the N-word. It's a politically correct way of saying you're the N-word. If you take these other words used to describe us like ghetto, hood - that's the comedy they expect. But we're not all urban. But a lot of times people use that term urban as ghetto black. I don't classify myself that way.

YLW: What do you want audiences to get from “Fat Bitch?”

EW: I want people to get from it that no matter who you are, regardless of your class, your size, we all have things about us that people use to stereotype you and put you in a box. For me, the mammy stereotype or the fat and sassy black woman stereotype is used to form an opinion of who I am.

YLW: How does someone perceive you in a mammy context in 2009?

EW: It has more to do with media and entertainment. When we're cast we're always nurturing someone else's need. Fat girls don't have boyfriends. We're here to sing and help everyone else with their problems. In real life if you ask people what they think about a plus size woman, larger weight is associated with lower class. If she's plus size, she' not wealthy. She's supposed to be a bus driver, a meter maid, a lunchroom lady. Those are the stereotypical things you think about with plus sized women. I have a masters degree. I'm smart. I'm fashionable. I'm sexy. I'm all those things. I'm not loud and abrasive. It's not like I can't wait to get to the club and drop it like it's hot and do a split and bring attention to myself.

YLW: (Laughing) Did you just say drop it like it's hot and do a split at the club? Is that what people expect?

EW: Yes. When you're treated that way, you can become a bitch, it makes you want to lash out. If I'm a fat bitch it's because society has made me that way.

YLW: Why do you think these stereotypes are placed on plus sized black women?

EW: I think they make them of all of us. There are other ways in which we are all stereotyped. When President Obama was running for office, middle America was like 'oh my God, this middle class black family, they love each other.' But if you live on the South Side of Chicago, you see that all the time. There's ways that all of us are stereotyped. Even black women on prime time TV aren't allowed to be really beautiful and strong. But if you're a young black woman who's educated and beautiful, we don't see you. Then people assume you don't exist.

YLW: How are people responding to Fat Bitch?

EW: Most people love it or at least that's what they tell me. Even if people don't agree with some of the things I say on stage, they can respect my ability to be honest and fearless in approaching the subject. There has never really been a project to talk about plus size women and our bodies and how it reflects on black women of all sizes.

YLW: How do stereotypes of plus sized black women reflect on black women of all sizes?

EW: A lot of the issues I bring up in the show, most skinny girls don't know about. They don't know about the parties where men come to meet full figured women. Most skinny girls don't know that's going on. Or the pretty face syndrome. People don't know what to do with you if you're fat and cute. Most skinny girls have no problem if your boyfriend has a big girl as a friend, but what if she's fat and cute? It poses other problems. Some of the stuff I talk about in my show women reach out to me about.

YLW: What do they say?

EW: They say I'm a skinny girl and I never thought my guy would like full figured women. Then I look in his porn collection and he has big girls all in his videos. Men like woman of all sizes. There haven't been many shows about black women and sexuality. A lot of men are uncomfortable, too. Even in my show where I talk about how promiscuous I was in college and my partners. Or how I had all this sex and never had a orgasm before.

That kind of thing isn't discussed. The same guy that might say to you that you're not thick enough, will come to me and tell me the exact opposite and how I should look like you. We're dealing with the same crap and we're all connected. As women, we're subjected to all these images. Cable TV tells us one thing, magazines tell us another, network TV tells us something else. But where do we as women create our own identities and say I don't care I”m just gonna be me.

YLW: True. The messages are conflicting and people need to create a space where they can appreciate themselves.

EW: Talk about post black identity, take the Hottentot Venus. Her body was on display because of her small waist and large behind. Then you have black women who are still objectified that way today. Once you go from thick to plus size, it's a different story. It's one thing dealing with the texture of your hair, and the color of your skin, then add the size of your waist . . . I see these panels where they talk about black women and self esteem, but there are never full figured women on these panels and most of the women are beige. We don't include plus sized women in the mix. How are you talking about self esteem when everyone on the panel looks the same?

YLW: I hadn't thought about that. Why don't we see plus sized women on panels about self esteem?

EW: When people talk about self esteem it's aspirational. It's about aspire to be better. But now since fat people are the new N-word in society – you can't turn on CNN without them talking abut the war on fat or the war on obesity. It's not a war on the health industry, but a war on fat people So considering that if you have a panel on self esteem do you want a fat woman on the panel? So, I get it.

YLW: Health and nutrition is a big issue. How do you advocate for better diet and respect for plus size women?

EW: I do want Americans to be healthy. I want black women to be healthy in every way: physical, sexual, and mental health. I think if someone's HIV positive today, no one would support discrimination against them. Even if you feel someone plus size should lose weight or be healthy, that doesn't mean don't hire me for a job. If you don't like it fine, but don't treat me badly because of my size.

EW: I just feel like black women have so many things to deal with as a whole. Talk about post black racial identity. What do you do if a women my size is supposed to be like mammy, but I'm not her complexion? I don't' have her issues. If I look more like the tragic mulatto but I'm mammy size who am I?

YLW: Does anyone ever fit a stereotype?

EW: None of us do. We're multifaceted. We're educated, we're evolved, artistic. You can go to the Art Institute and have a good time. But you might want to grab a drink with your friends at the Dating Game on Stony Island. But black people who do a lot of things and are in the mix of things, they don't know where to put us. I'm in NYC. There is no black middle class. In NYC either you're rich or you're poor and everyone in between is trying to get to one or the other. I go to the Guggenheim, but I still want to get some fried fish and put hot sauce on it. It's like who are these people? Is it called code switching when you go from different experiences.

YLW: Code switching?

EW: When black people have to switch from one identity to another. If you're a middle class black person you have three different faces, being in the corporate world is different from middle class black world. When I was in Chicago at my show, the majority of the black press would not write about me. They assumed it was something hood or ghetto. But the white press, when they read Fat Bitch, they assume I was a feminist because many feminist have taken on the word bitch as a word of empowerment about themselves, in that I'm talking about size, or being a fat activist. I'm not a fat activist. I'm a size activist.

YLW: What's a size activist?

EW: I believe that all people of all sizes should be accepted.

YLW: You said some black press wouldn't write about you? Why not?

EW: One writer told me her editor told her they couldn't talk about me because it was trash. It's that black bourgeois existence that really isn't that evolved. They're not exposed to as much culture as they would argue that they are. If my show was a gospel stage play at the Regal called Hot Grits Will Burn Your Tongue, every Negro would buy a $35 ticket to my show. If you do something different, you would think forward thinking black people would come out but they don't. Now I had a lot of people come out. They saw my flyer and said what's this? It's like open your mind, there's more out here than the stereotypical stuff. I don't know what it is where we think we're so high folluting. But really they haven't changed their mentality from that of a slave.

YLW: They're looking for others to validate you first?

EW: Yes. A lot of times we say black people are trend setters. In some ways we are, in other ways we are followers. We set trends within this realm of existence within a context that someone else gave to us. True trend setters step outside of the mode. That's what I want to do with my show. I want it to be profound. I don't take myself too seriously. I'm honest with myself, and open about mistakes I made. If I can help other women express themselves and encourage other women then I feel good.

I think what you're doing is so interesting. I think that is a question we have to ask? Who are we? what is our identity in this country now and abroad? No one is really talking about this new generation of African Americans. It's hard to put us in a box.

For more information on Erica Watson view

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Black Gay Lifestyle and DLisms: Interview with Relationship Expert Art Simms

Art "Chat Daddy" Sims is a Chicago based columnist/relationship expert and host of the Real Deal Relationship Chats and Facebook Fridays. His discussions and advice are centered around sexuality and community empowerment.

YLW: When people think African American, they don't usually include gay identity. Why or why not?

AS: Black gays are only identified screaming and carrying on. They are never identified as a black gay professionals openly.

YLW: Why not?

AS: Fears of community, fears of church. Fears of family. These things have been instilled in us for so long it's not even funny. That's why so many of these people can't satisfy their sexual desires.

YLW: Talk to me about the diversity in the black and gay community.

AS: Well, here's the deal. I think the diversity has become much more accepted. What people think of as gay is the most flamboyant, outlandish thing I've ever seen. Black gay men need to network more. We have no children. We have lots of disposable income. We're probably the biggest consumer of health products, the biggest consumers of buying homes, automobiles, art. I'm sure our dollar is incredible. You can go to any black gay club on a Friday night and the line is wrapped around the block.

YLW: Is there such a thing as an African American gay lifestyle? Or an ideal lifestyle?

AS: Yes it is. A nice place to live, nice car to drive. You vacation, you travel. Dog, child. You're a couple. I have two friends they've been together for 20 years. They vacation together, they. But I only have a handful

YLW: Being in a couple is the ideal?

AS: Right.

YLW: What else is part of the African American gay lifestyle?

AS: Eating right. Taking care of themselves. I took a straight cousin of mine to a holiday party hosted by a gay guy. He said oh my God everybody in here looks like a Christmas ball on a tree. If I had not chose the lifestyle I chose I'd be in prison, jail or have a bunch of babies. I came from the era of when gangs were getting started. The only reason I stayed out of it was because the head guy was my friend.

YLW: Are you saying that if you hadn't embraced your gay identity you would have lead a life of crime?

AS: No, I wouldn't have lead a life of crime. However, my gay lifestyle exposed me to better things in life - culturally, spiritually. It took me away from the neighborhood I was used to. I was able to go to other lifestyles. I've met some of the most interesting people on earth. Presidents of companies, artists. None of my friends who I grew up with in elementary school have ever gotten off the block. They lived and died on the block.

YLW: What are the most pressing issues in the black GLBT community?

AS: Definitely this economy, with people losing their jobs left and right. HIV and AIDS will always be high on the list. It's something that needs to be addressed. Probably relationships. If African Americans had developed relationships like our white counterparts, we might be better off economically.

YLW: What are your thoughts on the “down low” conversation?

AS: The down low conversation to me is deep in many ways. First of all, no one ever addressed what it was. All women knew was that it was going on. No one ever said, well what issues caused these men to sleep with other men? Is it the prison thing? Is it the curiosity thing? Is it they were always attracted to men? Women try all kinds of things and don't get labeled. Two women can be together and it turns men on. The moment men decide they want to try it and test it out they get labeled.

YLW: Is the “down low” exaggerated?

AS: It's been a part of life forever. It just took E Lynn and JL to come out and talk about it.

YLW: When you think Post Black what comes to mind?

AS: It's so many things that are Post Black. The divide is between those who think things are going to change and those who don't

YLW: Why do you say that?

AS: A lot of these people who have been in power and control they're not trying to help anyone else. They're still trying to get more. They can't get enough. How will there be other chances for others if we don't regenerate?

To learn more about Art Sims go to

Monday, November 30, 2009

Women in Entertainment and the Power of No: An Interview with WEEN Chairman Valeisha Butterfield

Valeisha Butterfield is Chair of WEEN, Women in Entertainment Empowerment Network. She is dedicated to empowering communities. A former Executive Director of the Hip Hop Summit Action Network she was recently appointed as the Deputy Director, Public Affairs at the Department of Commerce – International Trade Administration.

YLW: Tell us about your work with President Obama's Administration.

VB: It's great work. It's been five weeks. I work for the International Trade Administration . I was appointed by the Obama administration 5 weeks ago. It's an honor to make a difference. We create jobs in my department. With the economy in the state that it's in, it's great to create jobs and help families sustain themselves. Even in my work with Russell Simmons in financial literacy I was creating opportunity . To come from a financial literacy background for minorities and now be part of a national or federal department responsible for trading jobs is exciting.

YLW: For people who are unfamiliar with hip hop culture, the concept that it can be leveraged to facilitate social change sounds strange. How did you create that bridge between entertainment and social change when you ran the Hip Hop Action Network?

VB: Numbers don't lie. When you look at the bottom line, and benchmark setting, you can leverage and market a brand, but your program is only as good as its audience. You can have a great financial literacy program and have all the programming. But if you don't have an audience or participants it's a failure. For me, I recognized early on that not only am I a fan of hip hop culture, but I also saw the value it had.

There are few other mediums that can compete with the influence that entertainment has on young people. As teachers, we can get in front of these kids and talk til' we're blue in the face. But when they hear someone and they already support their music, to hear that message coming from them changes the way they feel about it - it effects them and how they receive the information. [Hip hop artists] have a platform and an audience. Why not leverage it and create a vehicle for artists to give back, but also enable kids to get information that helps impact their lives each day.

YLW: What is WEEN?

VB: WEEN is an organization I founded with three of my friends two years ago. It started as a meeting in my apartment with all of the top ranking execs in entertainment. It was humbling for me at the time to see the great response. You get so caught up in your everyday work, you don't know the respect you have from your peers. But what started as an invitation to 20 women wound up being for 120.

We started the organization as a way for women who wanted to pursue a career in entertainment. We have 40,000 members. The goal was to help create more balance, by mentoring, educating them, and giving them the life skills required to be successful.
It's not just limited African American women, it's for all women of all races and ages. We wanted to be as broad as we could and as inclusive as we could, for women who wanted a helping hand.

YLW: What advice do you share with young women breaking into the industry?

VB: One thing that I always tell young ladies that I mentor - and I believe this is the key to success although I figured it out late in life. One of the things that I did wrong in the beginning, in interviews and meetings, whenever I was trying to pitch myself, I would go in selling how great I was, how educated, how smart, how right I was for the job. I would never get the job and I couldn't figure it out. Then one day a light bulb went off.

The key to success in an interview or business deal is instead of selling yourself and how great you are, show that person how you can add value to their business and their program. Do your research, study and understand your target. Find out how you can help increase their value and their bottom line. In business, people want to know how can you help them.

YLW: One of the great challenges that many high achieving women reference is this quest for balance. What is your take on that?

VB: Spiritual balance and personal balance is important for anyone who wants to be successful. That's something I'm still working on. Having a healthy balance between your career your personal life, and spiritual life. If you focus too heavily in one area, all three ultimately end up failing or not meeting your needs as a person. I've been guilty of focusing on one versus. another. But it's important to have that balance.

YLW: In this age, whether a woman can “do it all” is no longer a question. It's been proven. But how does a woman with multiple talents in a land of multiple opportunities choose?

VB: The founders of WEEN and I have have this debate all the time. It's a healthy debate as a woman who is talented at multiple things. How do you choose and balance and do it all? I have a different philosophy. If you do 5 things well, I say choose 1 and do it exceptionally well. I've always been much stronger, in choosing one thing having a sharp focus on it and honing it and becoming known for that.

Once you get that running, then you move and expand to the next thing. I'm very focused in what I try to do. But my colleague is a singer, a host, and an attorney. And she does 8 things exceptionally well, and she does it simultaneously and really well. It's what works for you. My advice has always been, choose one and become the best at it,

YLW: Why do you say choose one?

VB: For the average person, who is smart and has goals, it's difficult, almost impossible to be exceptional at all things at once. Whenever I wanted to get many things off the ground at one time, I become very average.

YLW: How have African American women unfolded in the past few years?

VB: For the past 10 years black women have really come into our own. Statistics show that African American women are growing leaps and bounds academically and even the media is starting to reflect that. To have an African American woman as First Lady, to have so many great and positive women in the public eye, I think it's an example of how far we've come. I think that as black women we remain as the backbone of the family structure, but we've expanded our options. We've become great professionals. . We have the confidence and exude the confidence of leadership that's always been within us.

YLW: In Post Black, I write about the vilification of the video girl. She's always a target. How do you feel about that?

VB: At the end of the day it's all about options and the notion of the video girl being judged for her decisions in life are unfair. At the end of the day, whether you're an actress, a singer, you have some type of role in front of the character. Do I agree with some of the things that are done. Of course not. Young girls are watching. When you have the world or segment of the world are watching. When you have an audience, why not take leadership in how people feel about themselves.

YLW: What advice do you have for women in business?

VB: As a woman, you have to have the ability to say no. I think by nature, most women feel the need to be nurtures. We want to get things done and be supportive and helpful and always find the answer and be available. But as a woman in business you have to say no without being apologetic. When you know your schedule is too tight and you don't have time to take a meeting, you don't have to squeeze it in. If a deal is on the table and a lot of money is at stake, but you're not comfortable with it, it's ok to say no. We want to say yes, but it's important to know the business in saying no.

YLW: Why do you think saying “no” is so difficult for women?

VB: It's just a part of our nature. We want to succeed and do good. We want to be liked and accepted by our male counterparts and we feel like it's a turnoff , not just personal, but professionally to say no. But any professional can respect a decision. That's something that I've had to overcome, and something my colleagues have had to overcome. In the end, it always works for the best, even it if it's not comfortable at first.

YLW: How did you gain the power of “no?”

VB: It goes back to strategy and knowing what your long term goals are. Every decision that you make should all roll up to that bigger strategy that you have for your life. Know that there is a bigger picture for your life that you have created, that God has created. It makes you less focused on acceptance when you know where you're headed in life. You focus less on being accepted and more on what your plans are in life.

YLW: When you hear Post Black, what comes to mind?

VB: There was a time when as black people the first adjective we'd use describing ourselves would be so say that we're black and any other identifier was second. That was a description that was used more often in the past than today. As black people we are finding out who we are and our individuality is shining. I am absolutely 100 percent proud to be a black woman. But if you ask us to define ourselves, I'll say I'm spiritual, I like to shop, etc. Because we've expanded so much as people. We have defined ourselves. Yes we are African American and proud, but we are so many things that we are proud of too. Individuality in the African American community is a part of who we are, but not losing our racial identity, is important, too.

YLW: Some people fear that you can't embrace individuality without dismissing the struggles of the past. But the two aren't mutually exclusive.

VB: We cannot forget our struggle as a people. Although we've had great examples of success, we still have along way to go, so it would be a huge mistake for us to forget that our ancestors sacrificed for us to be who we are. We also have to educate our kids. I didn't grow up during the Civil Rights Movement, but my parents made sure I knew about the struggle, so that I could know as a black woman who I am and where I came.

We must not forget. We must learn from the past and we should have a sense of pride. We didn't get here easy. It wasn't a cake walk. A lot of people made sacrifices, a lot of people lost their lives. But we can't let that hold us back either. We have to keep pushing forward, and keep evolving, in order to be who God wants us to be.

For more information on WEEN go to

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Atlanta Housewives, Her Crown & Glory, and Service: An Interview with Celebrity Stylist Dwight Eubanks

Celebrity stylist and fashion leader Dwight Eubanks may be known for his colorful commentary on the hit reality show The Real Housewives of Atlanta, but he also devotes time to community issues, recently hosting Her Crown & Glory in Chicago, a fundraiser for African American women who have alopecia or hair loss due to chemotherapy. Eubanks styled women whose hair came out after chemo treatments. "I'd style them and their hair was coming out in clumps," he said. But he reassured them. "We're going to get through this." Eubanks owns the wildly popular The Purple Door in Atlanta and is an internationally recognized stylist.

YLW: You were a host for Her Crown & Glory, the Krystal Foundations' fundraiser for African American women who have alopecia.

DE: The event was fabulous. It would be a travesty if they don't continue this and keep it up. Neiman Marcus was a sponsor, Carson Soft Sheen was a sponsor. Most important were the survivors. It just made my heart happy and sad to see them courageously share their true experience. I hope they take this event across the country.

YLW: Why did you get involved?

DE: I have a personal relationship with this experience. I've had clients that are no longer with me. I saw what they went through. This is a story to tell. We're a special kind of people and this is a need that has to be addressed. For these people to come forward and share their stories is amazing. We have designers who make wonderful wigs. But on the other hand, if you want to go bald its okay. It's nothing to be ashamed of. We still have female baldness which we don't talk about. The more we educate, the more we can help.

YLW: You do a lot of service work in the community. Why?

DE: Success is me helping somebody else. Helping The Jerusalem House, or The Evolution Project which is a part of AIDS Atlanta, where teens ages 13-18 who are HIV positive and homeless get assistance. Evelyn Lowery (Women of SCLC) and I put it together. Or my work with the Cancer Center. It's about giving back and helping somebody. That's why we're here.

YLW: You're also a fashion expert. What role has fashion and hair played in African American culture?

DE: We have so many options today. Years ago we didn't have the same technology. You can be whoever you want to be. You can take a man and make him a woman. That's the power of technology. And it still amazes me. There are no limits.

YLW: Why do you think image plays such a big role in African American identity?

DE: It's not just about us, it's about everybody. This is a looks society. It's all about image. You want to wear it natural, wear it straight or do nothing. Either way its fine.

YLW: Have perceptions on sexual orientation in our community changed over the years?

DE: It's a different day and a different time. We have evolved and we are still evolving. As Americans we always want to put a label on it. In the European markets they don't. If you want to be with the same sex go right ahead. We are going to leave this world one day, we might as well live as if it's our last . The bottom line is nobody really cares. They just want you to be honest. Be honest to your God and to yourself.

YLW: Is "The Real Housewives of Atlanta" a groundbreaking show? Four black well-to-do women and their drama could be considered a television first.

DE: No, it's not groundbreaking for nobody. We don't take it as a groundbreaking show just like Real Housewives in Orange County isn't groundbreaking. These are 5 women and this is who they are. They didn't win a pageant. People went knocking and they said yes. They don't represent nobody. This is who they are.

YLW: Whenever there are shows or films with an African American cast, this issue of image and responsibility comes up.

DE: We have options, you can look at it or not look at it. You have choices . It's the number one show, so everyone's watching. It's almost like being addicted to crack. The more reruns they show, the more people watch. My mom can't stop watching. I think she has a problem.

YLW: Why is the show so popular?

DE: People can relate to it. When I was in Chicago, I was with people I didn't think watched the show, but they had me down to a T, and these were some Jewish white women, They love the show and they love me. I met some wonderful people who watch the show. Straight guys, red neck guys. They run up to me. This one guy ran up on me in the airport and I almost pulled out my knife. I'm still shocked. You never know whose watching.

YLW: You have a show in the works as well.

DE: Once they figure out what they want to do with me they'll let me know. And trust me, they're working on it.

YLW: In the age of reality shows, how do you become a successful reality star?

DE: This is really who I am. The way I dress on the show is how I dress everyday. Either you love me or you hate me. I go on. I speak what's on my mind. I am not an actor, I am not an aspiring actor. I am Dwight Eubanks, I'm true to myself and true to my God.

For more information on Dwight Eubanks, go to

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Natural Hair: An Interview with author Chris-Tea Donaldson

Chris-Tea Donaldson is a corporate attorney and author of Thank God I'm Natural: The Ultimate Guide to Caring for and Maintaining Natural Hair. She ditched her straightened hair for the beauty of natural hair styling. Now she's prepping to launch a natural haircare line of her own.

YLW: With Chris Rock's doc Good Hair on screens it seems that everyone is talking about hair.

CD: Hair is the thing to talk about. It's tied to self esteem. It's a remarkable time especially with Chris Rock's movie to have these conversations, to talk about some of the damaging processes - not talking about relaxers and weave as a judgment, but rather talking about an unhealthy obsession with them. Sometimes it's fun to switch up your look, but when it's about hiding self consciousness about your own hair, that's a different issue. I did a TV show last night with a guy on WGN, he decided to devote a half hour on his show to talk about this issue. It's interesting that the men are taking such an issue. Maybe they're trying to tell us something.

YLW: I've had men tell me that they don't care about a woman's hair. They want it to look nice of course, but whether it's straight, curly, natural or weave . . . they could care less.

CD: Men are concerned about body. That's what Chris Rock said when they look at King, its all about ass. On the other hand, men might not know subconsciously what kind of emphasis they put on hair. Women do it for other women, not for the boys.

YLW: Why do you say that?

CD: When it comes to natural hair, one of the biggest myths is that it's unprofessional. I work for a company that is largely white and male and I've been fine. I often found that when it comes to natural hair, that the ones who make the most critical remarks are black women.

YLW: I wear my hair really big sometimes and when I do get criticism the issue isn't the hair style, it's the fact that I have the confidence to wear it and still look good. Almost as if to say how dare you wear your hair in a way that's supposed to be unattractive and still look cute.

CD: Exactly. It's more from a place of feeling uncomfortable. Like you're wearing big hair, what does that say about me? Why does she feel she can wear her hair like that? Or what does it say about me to be around someone who wears their hair like that.

It wasn't until we came to America that we started straightening our hair. These are practices we adopted to be a part of mainstream society. There are ads in my book from the early 20ith century for hair straightening serum. They'll say “achieve happiness marriage with straight hair.” Today, you'll see an ad for weave and the same sense of happiness is implied.

YLW: But hair is not purely an African American womens issue. Hair is an obsession with women in general. Weaves, coloring, straightening are popular in America among all cultures.

CD: Across cultures, long full hair is considered to a big asset. Jessica Simpson has a popular weave line.

YLW: Then why is their such a focus on what black women do with their hair?

CD: Black hair is more politicized.

YLW: What do you mean?

CD: If you wear your hair in your natural state you're being rebellious, militant. If you're a white person wearing a different style, it doesn't have the same political weight .Meaning the afro of the 70s was seen as a rejection of white beauty standards or seen as militancy, protest, rebellion. No other time in history will you see those labels for women who changed their hair.

YLW: What role does hair play in identity?

CD: I think hair plays a major role in identity. By the time you're 30 you get used to your hair. At a very young age in our community, by age 3, you know if you have what people consider good hair or bad hair. It's not always expressed verbally. But you know if you are the girl with the long silky hair that people fall over and if you're not. It creates a deep impression on black women throughout their lives, or at least the early part of their lives. The same goes for skin color. By the age of 3, you know what people consider attractive. That's why when they do the doll experiments black kids are still picking the white doll. They know from a very young age what people view as beautiful.

YLW: Why did you write this book?

CD: I think so many people have misconceptions about our hair in its natural state. They think you have to have hair like Mariah Carey or Alicia Keys to wear it natural. You can have kinky hair and wear it natural. It's not going to jeopardize your ability to navigate in the workplace and you won't be rejected by men because of it.

YLW: Then why do many women believe that approval in their work life and relationships depend in part on their hair being long and straight?

CD: Because you turn on movies and the videos and that's what you see. The woman with the natural is not the leading lady. The media is pushing the image down our throats. There are men who want weave. But I think men are naturally drawn to big hair. They love women with the confidence to wear it in it's natural state. You can wear hear down to your ass, but if you don't have confidence, it doesn't do anything for you. We're our harshest critics. My boss is worth millions of dollars and he doesn't care how I wear my hair. It's all about being comfortable. When we accept who we are for what we are, it goes a very long way.

For more info on Chris-Tea Donaldson go to www.ThankGodI'

Monday, November 9, 2009

Community Organizing- A Career Choice: An Interview with Oxford Grad Quinn K. Rallins

Quinn Kareem Rallins is a community organizer with the Brockton Interfaith Community. A Rhode Scholar Finalist and recent grad of Morehouse and Oxford University, he's focused on empowering community residents. He also studies movements of the past including the fights for Civil Rights and Womens Rights to better understand the challenges of today.

YLW: When you tell people that you're a community organizer how do they respond?

QKR: The major response I get is that people don't understand. They wonder what exactly is it that you do? Who exactly do you work with? There are different forms of organizing. Issue based organizing. Faith based organizing. The organization I'm with works is a faith based organization. It's more complex than people understand.

YLW: Are there other African Americans organizing with you?

QKR: I'm the only one.

YLW: But you've met others?

QKR: Yes, I've met others. There are a lot of organizations. But there aren't a lot of people of color.

YLW: What do you attribute that to?

QKR: Once you graduate you take out a $100,000 in loans, there's a need to pay that back. I have a lot of friends who have to help out their family. I'm not in any debt, so I have a certain level of flexibility in terms of how I pursue dreams, and I'm not financially constrained. Plus, [being a community organizer] is not financially lucrative.

YLW: I wonder, too if people know to view it as a career option. Do you feel that President Obama has inspired more people to look at community organizing as a profession?

QKR: It's more organizing going on than people realize. People have been organizing for decades. The Civil Rights Movement is just one example. However, Barack Obama illuminated it as a profession and showed that working for the people can be a part of your career.

YLW: Do you think people in Gen X and Y are committed to service?

QKR: I think for the younger people it's ingrained or possibly artificially ingrained. In Chicago, we had 40 hours of community service we had to do in high school. In college you do it to boost your resume. People do it, but I don't know if it's ingrained. It's being done,but I don't know how you can gage sincerity.

YLW: Tell me about the work you're doing now?

QKR: I'm organizing in Brockton, Ma. We organize around a range of things - health care, housing . One of the priorities is working on health care and foreclosures. Brockton has one of the highest foreclosure rates in the state of Massachusetts. Forty four out of every 1,000 homes are in some state of foreclosure. I'm working in a community which is highly minority. A lot of Cape Verdians, Latinos, African Americans, West Africans. It's a small city with big city problems.

YLW: What role do you play?

QKR: I take the stories that people have, the pain that they have. The stories that people have illustrate the problem within the community. A problem might be lack of diversity within administration, say the the city council, the teachers, etc. Within the problem, we focus on a specific issue. So if it's a problem of diversity then we work on a specific issue, getting more people of color.
With foreclosures, the specific issue is to get more of the bailout money or TARP money to go to homeowners who are unemployed. Right now most of the money goes to banks to do modifications or have incentives for them to assist homeowners. We're trying to get a portion of the money to go directly to homeowners to help pay their mortgage while they're unemployed, and when they're employed they can get it back.

YLW: What's the difference between community organizing and activism?

QKR: Activist make demands. We need water, we need affordable housing. But organizing doesn't just make demands on the government. It's about making people the part of the solution. Government doesn't have all the solutions. So we don't come into meetings making demands, we have come in with proposals.

YLW: Many people probably use activist and organizer interchangeably. I know I have. But there's a difference in strategy. What's the organizer process?

QKR: We listen to the stories, we listen to their pain which tells us the problem. After we go to the overall problem, then we find out which issues we want to tackle. You can't tackle everything. Something that's feasible. Then we go from the issue to research. So if it's finding teachers of colors, then you find out where has this been implemented? How did it work? Then you go to action. Meeting with public officials to get their commitment.

YLW: What have you learned?

QKR: I've learned it's a big difference between the world as it is and the world as it should be. It takes a large degree of honesty and a hunger for power to move from how the world is to where it should be. A lot of times we want to recognize how things work, the realities of how it works. But to improve the world, you have to be very real about how it is. I found that organizing puts the power back into people's hands. But power almost has a negative connotation.

YLW: How so?

QKR: People have misused power for so long. Power is good. If you're going to change the situation , you have to see power as something that's good. But we need a good balance of power - the legislative, judicial, and executive branch. In our government, people don't see themselves as the 4rth level of power. People need to see public officials as their employees. They're working off of your tax dollars. They can't make decisions without your say so. You have the power to elect or reelect them.

YLW: Any other insights?

QKR: Just recognizing the power of people. Just recently, it was illustrated in the 08 election. It was witnessed in the Civil Rights movement. But it's something powerful that can happen when the masses get on the same page.

YLW: It seems as if people are having more conversations about service. More volunteerism, fundraisers, etc.

QKR: There's been an emphasis on public service for the past few years, the need to work on the ground and give back. Some people have a top down approach, but increasingly people are trying to have a bottom up approach where they work in the communities to get things changed. It's been going on for a long time, but it was a certain level of illumination towards it.

YLW: How did you get involved in community organizing?

QKR: I went to Morehouse. I was in college when Hurricane Katrina hit. I was working with Katrina on the Ground. I along with some colleagues from Morehouse were working with organizers in New Orleans to help rebuild the community. We did things including rebuilding houses to working with residents. It was a different approach to solving problems. Organizing is different from advocacy. In advocacy, the people don't even have to be there. But its an entirely different thing to get people to talk for themselves. It's different from social service.

YLW: How so?

QKR: In college I worked with soup kitchens and helped where needed. But at the end of the day you have to stop grabbing the weed at the top. Do you want to get at the root of the problem? Then you have to dig in and get it at the root. Why do these things exists? Why did the foreclosures take place. At the same time while we're focused on the short term crisis of getting people in their homes, we have to go back and make sure this doesn't happen again.

YLW: How did your education at Morehouse and Oxford shape your views on working in communities?

QKR: Morehouse is an institution that is constantly focused on developing the whole person. The president [of the college] said I want you to be so concerned about the plight of others that you can't sleep at night. HBCUs have traditionally been schools that created concerned people in the community. I spent as much time in the community as I did in the classroom in undergrad. Spending time in public schools, summers in Malaysia. Doing a campaign against capital punishment. I found a school that really embraced community work and leadership.
Oxford helped me to really analyze policies. This goes to getting back to the root of the problem. Whey do these health care problems exist? When was reform tried before? When did it fail? Right now the Senate is about to debate health care. How can it pass? If if fails, why? If it is to succeed what things have to be implemented for it to pass in the future?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Farming in the hood, growing up with white parents, and black identity in the Dominican Republic: An Interview with Social Activist Beth Gunzel

Beth Gunzel is a Chicago based community advocate, working with microfinancing, urban agriculture and workforce development. She is Program Manager for Employment Training at Growing Homes a nonprofit/social enterprise that produce organic vegetables in the inner city. Raised by white adoptive parents, Gunzel wrestled with identity issues that were only complicated when she lead a microfinancing program in the Dominican Republic. As for her DR experience - “Here I am in a black country with black people and they don't know what black is.”

YLW: You've dedicated your life to social service and food justice. Are your fellow GenX'rs and Yers boggled by your decision to ditch a corporate job?

BG: You have this upward mobility about being dedicating to an activity because it brings me power and privilege vs. I do what I do because it unleashes my innate potential of me as a human being. I see people struggling with that. I struggle with this. But I have to really center myself. As a little girl I knew this work was what I was going to do.

YLW: Do you take issue with upward mobility for the sake of money and status?

BG: I think that what people are doing on an individual basis addresses those wrongs of the past.

YLW: You mean exclusion, or African Americans being excluded historically?

BG: Yes. But, it's a paradox. We're trying to move from exclusion in a number of areas, but I wonder are we doing it in a way that's challenging the larger issues that created that exclusion to begin with. Because that situation exists for others. So if blacks move to heights never imagined, believe me there will be another group that comes in and fills that void. My concern is are we engaging in the humanistic values.

YLW: How did you get involved in organic urban farming?

BG: I moved to the Dominican Republic after I got my degree in Urban Planning and Policy - to head a micro-financing program. I was working with farmers, urban entrepreneurs, people selling food or doing hair. The grant that paid my salary was the Global Food Crisis Program. I began understanding these issues of food production, who's benefiting from what, and how food gets to our tables. I was thinking a lot about food security issues.

YLW: What's a food security issue?

BG: The movement is still trying to come up with a concrete definition. But food security is rooted in local reliance. Communities, not just low income, but even the city could be considered food insecure in that most of the food is imported. If there was some big catastrophe where would we get our food from? So our movement deals with that, in addition to getting healthy food to communities.

YLW: How did you wind up in Chicago?

BG: I came back to Chicago at the worse possible time, in 08 when they announced the recession. I thought about getting another masters in crop sciences. Then I saw an ad for Growing Homes. I was a little intimidated. Urban farming is different from helping farmers grow cash crops in the DR. But the job was focused more on the planning and upkeep of the farm, and it's a transitional program.

YLW: How does Growing Homes work?

BG: We welcome up to 25 individuals a growing season to work with us. They're trained in basic horticulture and soils, and they are involved in supporting the operations of this business. It's a way of getting people who face employment challenges to build resumes and to organize some things in their lives. In addition to the work, we do job readiness training, job management, food issues, and teach nutrition. Interns also work in sales, so they learn marketing, community outreach - getting people to know about organic produce. It's a pretty dynamic program.

YLW: How do you sell your produce?

BG: We sell our produce in Lincoln Park at Green City Market, through a CFA program (community supported agriculture), so when a person who wants our produce can buy a share before the growing season, and then they're provided with a box of produce every week. We also sell at our Englewood farmers market. We also have a farm stand at our Englewood office.

YLW: I'm a total city girl, so I have to ask, how do you grow food in the hood?

BG: We have three sites. One site in the Back of the Yards, 50th and Laflin, which is an outdoor plots. We have Marseilles , IL, a 10 acre, rural farm, 6 acres . In the Wood St./Englewood site, we do growing in hoop houses, so we grow in an unheated structure. The inside structure is in the shape of a hoop but it's covered in plastic. It works like a greenhouse, it captures the sun's energy and increases the temperature. So we can grow longer. We can grow plants that wouldn't be thriving outdoors right now. We can also grow earlier. We can do our first sales of produce in March, using the hoop house.

YLW: What do you grow?

BG: We grow pretty much everything. It depends on the season. We have carrots beets, leafy greens, arugula, kale, herbs of all king, basil cilantro, eggplant, tomato, watermelon, turnips, asparagus, strawberries, beans of all kinds.

YLW: Wow. How long does the program last?

BG: It's a six month program. It starts in April of every year. We graduated people in October.

YLW: How do the participants like the program? Are any of them thinking about doing food advocacy work or starting urban farms?

BG: You have people who say 'it's everything I needed, I feel more confident, my job search skills have improved,' and a couple of those people have been hired on with us. We also had people who said 'I don't want to learn how to farm, but I need a work history, I want to build my resume.' So although, they don't want to work in food advocacy, they got what they needed. We have other people who are thinking about getting into health, nutrition or culinary school.

YLW: What kind of food issues do low income communities like Englewood face?

BG: In Englewood the issue you have is that you don't have fresh healthy produce readily accessible to people. Also, people are in survival mode. How to get beets or kale may not be at the top of the list. They might just be trying to get calories.

YLW: Is there a high awareness of the need for organic food in the community?

BG: You'd be surprised at how much people do know. Englewood is a predominantly African American and the program participants are African American. People tell me they've been green all along, but green wasn't feasible anymore. People that I talk to have a lot of connection to the land. I don't know if it's a South side thing. But many of the participants either grew up on a farm, or they're parents grew up on a farm, or they have members who are still farming.

But for Americans, it's a difference between what we know we should be doing vs. what we do. So they might do beets and carrots one day. But it's about incorporating it in your daily life.
People need to know how to prepare things and feel economical. But they also need the confidence to change their identity, because it causes a lot of anxiety.

YLW: You were raised by adoptive white parents and you're biracial. Did that present any identity challenges for you?

BG: There's this feeling that biracial children in the 70s were put up for adoption not because your mom couldn't take care of you, but because this relationship was not accepted . You can't prove it, but a lot of adopted biracial kids my age feel that way and are starting to talk about it. Biracial kids can be given up for adoption for race alone.

YLW: I never knew that.

BG: There's the issue of being adopted and there's the issue of being black. Within my family there wasn't any type of contempt for people of color, but they couldn't protect me from what was outside of our home. My parents have never said anything about someone talking to them about adopting a biracial kid. I grew up in a cooperative neighborhood for people of different colors and sexual orientations, so I was very privileged. When I was 12, my mom didn't quite know how do deal with my hair, though.

My brothers had a lot of problems. They are white, and they had to defend me and be around people who talked about people of color. I liked heavy metal. I listened to that. I still do. And I was really proud of the groups I liked. I saved my money and would buy the Metallica T shirt. But in public, I would turn it inside out.

YLW: Why?

BG: Whites would think 'what is a black girl doing with a Metallica T-shirt?', but my friends of color, not just black but Mexican, Pakistani, would look at me and say 'that's white.' I wasn't listening to Bobby Brown or New Kids on the Block. I grew up not having any particular identity. But as I grew up, it helped me talk to all people. At lunch, I didn't go to the black table or the white table, I ate outside, and they would come to me. I dealt with it by learning to speak Spanish.

YLW: How did that lead you to learn Spanish?

BG: I'm looking at this from an adult perspective. I wonder if it was me trying to escape from these rigid expectations.

YLW: Rigid expectations as they related to you as an African American person?

BG: Right. I think I felt that this language was mine and mine alone. I grew up in among a large Mexican population. Some of it was I did well in it, and I wasn't a good student. It's not that I wasn't smart, I just didn't apply myself. Learning this language was really a passport, not just to traveling but to having other human interactions. You learn about different things. I was really interested in Afro Latino countries. That's what brought me to the Dominican. It's a country of blacks who have the same background as we do, but they speak Spanish. You can speak another language and be black. There are a lot of black people in Latin America, Panama, Nicaragua, Columbia . . .

YLW: I regretted that I didn't master French.

BG: Me, too. In the D.R, they have over 1 million Haitian immigrants who speak French and creole. I learned some creole.

YLW: Did living in the Dominican Republic impact your views on black identity?

BG: The question 'what does black mean?' is an American thing. Black doesn't exist there. I was wheat colored. And they told me that. Black is Haitian, or African. There's a strict color hierarchy. That was weird for me. My parents never told me I was light. I didn't know what that meant until I started hanging out with black people. My parents never said I was biracial. They said I was black. They didn't bring it up until they saw me reading all this black literature, like Malcolm X. She said why are you reading about Malcolm X, I said I want to learn about my history. And she said, don't forget that you're half white, which she never said before.
Anyway, I go to DR and I wanted to go to a place where there are other black people, and when I get there, they're like, who are you calling black?

YLW: Was it confusing living in a black country that had a different concept of black identity?

BG: It produces a lot of anxiety because we've fought a lot for that identity, and when it doesn't exist in other places, you're like, wow. Then, and I'm not trying to make light of it, but it looks silly. It's a framework that's useless in terms of separating people and resources based on these things. I got to the point in the DR, where I figured they're lucky that they don't have to deal with all this, 'you're black and what does that mean.' What does it really mean to be black? We identify ourselves on a foreign concept. We came as Africans, or people of different ethnicities, we came as free people, as explorers.

YLW: But asserting black identity at home was very important for you. Did it feel weird being in the DR and they had no idea what you were talking about?

BG: At first it was difficult, in defending black people at home, then when I get to the DR, they're like 'who are you calling black? Then I realized, it wasn't necessary in their culture to have that definition of black. Then I said wow, this is a really huge social construct tied to the economic structure.

YLW: Why do you say that?

BG: My Haitian friends called themselves black, they identified with African Americans, but my DR friends did not. And they both look the same. In Haiti, they had the chattel slavery system, where there was a strict distinction between black and ruling class. But in DR they didn't have that. There wasn't a need for a strict concept of black and white in their country. The DR was a defunct country, the Spanish who moved there married African people. So I have a concept of black, I 'm moving to a black country that doesn't have a construct of black. Who am I?

YLW: But there is a concept of black in the Dominican Republic, they just don't apply it to themselves.

BG: When Dominicans come to the US they get schooled in it real fast. They're no longer looked at as Dominican unless they're really light. They get grouped in with blacks. But in the DR the term black is a oppressive political word against Haitians.

YLW: Do you think the concept of black identity should be abandoned?

BG: What I've found is it's a human need to have one – any identity. That goes across all time periods. People are intimately involved in shaping their identity. Although I'm critical, I'm sensitive to the need to know that. I still think it's a fascinating thing, the identities we come up with.

For more information on Growing Homes view.

Monday, October 26, 2009

All that Jazz and Muslims in America: An Interview with Award Winning Photographer Laylah Barrayn

Laylah Barrayn is an award winning photographer, educator and curator. I first met Laylah when I interviewed her for Upscale Magazine where she discussed her critically acclaimed Dakar Series. Born and raised in Brooklyn, Barrayn's work has been showcased in galleries across the country including the Latin Collector Gallery, Museum of Contemporary Art in DC, and Danny Simmons' Corridor Gallery among others.

She was selected as one of the young photographers in “the Shootout' honoring civil rights photographer Jack T. Franklin at the African American Museum in Philadelphia. Her photography was also included in the photo anthology BLACK: A Celebration of Culture. A self taught photographer, she has studied at New York University and Universitie Cheikh Anta Diop in Senegal, West Africa.

YLW: Your latest exhibit Kindred Cool was featured at the Museum of Contemporary African Diaspora Arts (MoCADA) in Brooklyn. It's a jazz tribute and I read that you were inspired by Romare Bearden, Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray.

LB: I came up with the idea to document the jazz community. Not the musicians, but rather the fans or people who are documenting it in a different way . . .the jazz community in their entirety. I identified these people and I had them pick people who they bonded with through jazz or their jazz friends. I had them choose their location and integrated their words into the photograph. It was just very cooperative and inclusive. I used some professors, but I also used some old school jazz dudes who were at the club. So people saw people they knew on the walls of the museum. It helped them to see themselves in another light. Like, hey, I'm in a museum now or my friends are on the wall. That's what I'm always trying to do. I want them to feel the continuum that we're all on.

YLW: What new trends do you see among African American photographers?

LB: I've noticed that a lot of my friends who aren't documentarian photographers or traditional portrait photographers don't use the race theme in their work. They're conceptional. They're discussing politics, some of their own personal ideas about sexuality or self image. But when you see the work it doesn't remind you of something that's racialized. That's not the first concept that they want to include in their work.

YLW: Why not?

LB: They're trying to be just really out there and take their most abstract ideas and put them into photographs - not even traditional photographs, but different processes. They're being really inventive and novel. I see people being very individualized and conceptual.

YLW: How would you define your work?

LB: I would define my work as community oriented. Communal. Very integrated. Very inclusive. I would define my work as very jazz. As a photographer, I'm really composing. My subjects determine what my final outcome is going to be. It's encouraging to me. It's a way for me to let them express themselves.

YLW: Why does identity play such a major role in your work?

LB: I'm a teacher so I'm big on people defining themselves. I just like to use my camera to help people do that. I've done that for myself, for some of my earlier portraits when I used to travel globally. I really wanted to have my subjects define themselves in these portraits. I'm about empowering people to take that power back to believe that they can define themselves and be this independent person and not succumb to negativity.

YLW: How do you choose your subjects?

LB: I just capture people. When I'm on the street and I see someone and their energy is good, I want to capture them. I capture energy. I also like to capture people with different styles.

YLW: How do you define your spiritual practice?

LB: I would be the more orthodox Muslim, I've been with Warith Deen Mohammed (American Muslim Mission) for a long time. They really have this African American cultural Islamic thing going on. It's very American. It fuses American culture with Islamic practices and beliefs. If you go around the world with Islam, some of the culture is going to change because of the culture that you're in. A Senegalese Muslim is going to practice differently from a Muslim from Thailand. An American Muslim is going to remember when Marvin Gaye died but for a Muslim somewhere else, it might not be as significant.

YLW: You're an artist, a Muslim, and a self described eccentric. Do you interact with people who have difficulty accepting that?

LB: It's is so hard for so many people to understand someone like me. For example. I cover my hair. Sometimes I'm eccentric and it bothers people. I don't know why. Even during my first year of college, there was a woman, I guess she was Christian, and when I would walk in the room she would do the church clap. And she would yell, 'oh, thank you Jesus.' I thought she was crazy. She did not like people who did not think that Jesus Christ was the Lord and savior of everybody. She was from D.C, and there's really no excuse because that's a diverse city. Most African Americans are Christians. In D.C, you have people from the middle East, from Ethiopia. You see these people, so there should be some type of sense of comfort. You shouldn't be that bothered because you see someone different from me. Even the woman I 'm in this organization with who is a minister, she can't process me. She doesn't like me at all.

YLW: One of the reasons I wrote Post Black is because many people have a limited view of the diversity in African American culture.

LB: True. You can be gay and lesbian can be black. Being in a rock band is black. You can be black and not be a traditional Christian. At the same time, I get these flashbacks from college where I'm coming from Brooklyn and I'm going to this school. It's just weird. I went to Syracuse, a lot of people who came from Brooklyn were enjoying this multiracial environment for the first time, it's like the one's who came from Brooklyn, they don't come home anymore.

YLW: You can stretch beyond your boundaries and still have a respect for where you came from. How would you encourage those who are uncomfortable with the diversity in the black community to embrace it?

LB: I would just have people calm down. If people realize that everything is a continuum and that we are so much more alike that we don't have to be at odds. People don't need to be afraid. If we start defining ourselves more and take pride of who we say we are, we wouldn't be so afraid of other people.