Building Bridges Across the Race Divide
In my last post I spoke of giving selflessly and building community as paths that can lead us out of our own drama and suffering and into a better future. After writing it I felt an awkwardness, wondering if my thoughts and actions really measured up to the things I had written. It is great to be able to write and perhaps inspire people with words, but it is in the realm of action where we are truly tested. I heard a small voice in my head telling me that perhaps I was promoting ideals that I wasn't quite living up to.
I have been in New Orleans less than two weeks and I am sure nobody expects me to be a community leader or the patron saint of reaching out to neighbors at this point. However for the first time in about 15 years I am a minority in my neighborhood, a pale white face in a sea of darker skinned people. Coming from a far less diverse community in Northampton, MA I find myself plagued with white guilt. Our culture is the operating system that runs in our minds, and even after years of disk maintenance, software upgrades and attempts to understand the problems that cause racial divide it is difficult to transcend it. I feel a bit unsettled when I walk out my door, as if my neighbors all distrust me and perhaps I should distrust them. It is a fear I knew I would have when I moved here and one I wanted to confront in my life so that I can evolve my being.
There is an artist named David Hammond who I learned about while studying Fine Art Photography at RIT back in the mid nineties and the lesson of his performance piece has stuck with me since then. In the middle of winter in New York City with snow on the ground free for the taking, he set up a spot on the sidewalk and began selling snowballs. In googling the work now I find that the concept behind his piece was to mock the commodification of the art world. But what I remember is a deeper lesson. In selling snowballs Hammond was able to connect with people that would normally walk by him with eyes averted, who now were curious and ready to strike up a conversation. He said something like "two strangers are naturally going to be uncomfortable around each other, but given a common object they can make a connection". I wish I could find his actual quote about that now, because I am sure he said it more eloquently than that.
At any rate, yesterday proved to be a turning point in my evolvement. I brought a small toy guitar here with me because I wanted to reignite my passion for playing but could not fit a full sized guitar in my luggage. I am typically quite shy about playing publicly, but yesterday I wanted to play and it was too stuffy in my apartment. I somehow overcame my fear of being the cracker playing folk songs in the hood and went out onto my front steps to play. Within a couple of minutes the kids across the street took notice and came closer to watch me. I had assumed that street musicians were so prevalent here that no one would care much, but something magical happened for me. People were noticing. An old black woman came over and stood next to me with her eyes closed and her heart totally open to my music. The kids across the street were now dancing and a few more people had come out. I realized then that this talent was one of my gifts, something that can make people happy. I realized that all the street musicians are down in the French Quarter trying to get money in their hats, but there is no money in my neighborhood, so this was more unique. The shared experience of the music turned me from stranger into a new member of our community.
Later that night I went out to the Hukah Club with my landlord and his partner. It was Hip Hop night and once again I found myself a grain of salt in a pepper shaker. Perhaps because of my earlier experience I did not feel the usual discomfort. The music was like a steam engine propelling my bootie barge into motion. My inhibitions dropped once again and I lost myself into dancing. I hopped around and shook my hips and all the while looking people in the eyes and smiling. I think that it moved people to see this white boy unafraid even though I don't have the requisite moves usually performed in the hip hop genre. The men started giving me various secret handshakes and teaching me little shoulder pops and hip thrusts. People were smiling with me.
I ended up at the edge of the dance floor near a raised platform where some women were sitting and dancing. They started taking pictures of me and then dancing with me, posing with me, laughing and letting loose. They even started doing that grind thing where they would bend over and put their fine booties into my groin area and move it them all around. Jump up jump up and jump down. So I started doing it too. All the yoga I have been doing has gotten my quite limber and flexible, and these girls loved dancing with me. I was dancing with the guys around me too. It was some of the most fun I have had in a long time. I was aware of the difference in our skin tones, but the dancing and celebrating transcended the cultural baggage in my mind and set me free. We are all one people after all, with many variations and flavors.
I feel like time is speeding up for me, like there is some great force propelling me onward. There is no more profound spiritual fulfillment than to be finding ones purpose in this life. I am so grateful to have these epiphanies coming more and more frequently, like I have opened up some channel for the universe and it is starting to flow more easily through me. I keep getting this deeper and deeper sense that we are all on the cusp of some great change. I also have a sense that I am meant to play some small roll in bringing it about. I believe we all are, if we can open up and let it in. At night I walk through this beautiful city and I can feel the trees speaking to me, I can hear the voice of the Earth, feel her warm breath in the air. She is my lover and my friend, who sustains me as I go. I make my promises to her, that whatever it is and whenever that time comes I will be ready. She in turn brings to me the experiences I need in order to grow. All the while she cultivates this love in my heart, shimmering and effervescent, that flows out from me to all sentient beings
At the end of the night I came home and recorded The House of The Rising Sun on my guitar with my new Samson USB mic, it is one of my favorite songs about New Orleans and I would love to share it with you: