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Recording Memories of the News

What did you read in the news yesterday?

I read that Jill Stein from the Green Party has launched a campaign to investigate the election outcome in three states. I read about the water cannons and a concussion grenade, I believe, that was thrown at a young woman in Standing Rock whose arm might have to be amputated. Oh, and a bill being introduced by a senator to prevent the registering of Muslims. Those are three of the topics I’ve been following.

You’ve been following them for a while? Have they been getting coverage for a long time?

I’ve been following Standing Rock for about two months now, maybe three. I’ve been following the election closely because, you know, I have a stake in it. Now I’m just trying to do the upkeep and monitor what is happening.

What is your earliest memory of the news?

Probably the biggest thing that I remember in terms of news is the assassination of John F. Kennedy. I was a little girl then and I didn’t know much about him, but with the reaction of everyone around me, it felt like the end of the world.

After that, I think the next thing that impacted me news-wise was the running of Barry Goldwater. Barry Goldwater ran on part of a platform [that] if he was elected, he was going to have all the African Americans shipped back to Africa. That was terrifying to me.

Do you remember the headlines?

I don’t remember the headlines, but watching it on television when television was like a big piece of furniture. Hearing those kind of things and just being absolutely terrorized and terrified by it. That was a very scary thing. The idea, as a little girl, that you could be pulled and torn from your home and shipped to a place that is not your own in terms of your immediate life? As an African American, I know that historically my people are from Africa and that’s sort of the motherland, but I did not grow up there.

How did you share these experience with your family at home?

I think we talked about it. I just remember the wave of despair from the adults when Kennedy was killed and then of course some of the assassinations afterwards—the assassination of Martin Luther King, the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, the assassination of Malcolm X—and looking at all of that on the news.

Being surrounded by the images of the Civil Rights Movement and the riots was a deep, scary, and heady— not unlike now.

How many news sources were you following back then?

It was Life magazine, Look magazine, Time magazine, Huntley and Brinkley on the news, Walter Cronkite, and we always read National Geographic. We were avid readers in the family. Those were our main sources. It was the television, following those talking heads, and those anchor people.

“With the idea that seven generations down the line matters, that water is life, there was a media blackout.”

How do you feel about the dystopic silence today after the election?

There is that deafening silence from many people who voted for Trump. We are seeing a level of cognitive dissonance. There is this incredible level of shock among so many of my white friends. I only speak about ethnicity if it’s important, otherwise, I always talk about people as people. But so many of my white friends are in complete and total shock that the country basically elected someone who is supported by the KKK and Nazis. People voted for this person.

As an African American woman in America, I know firsthand what it’s like to be viewed as the “other,” not just disliked but spat upon. I’ve had rocks thrown at me. I’ve had two houses burn down. I’ve had my life threatened. I was horrified but I was not immobilized like, “Oh my god, can you believe it?’ Yes people, I can believe it.

I had friends who just several weeks ago said, “You know, one morning I woke up and I just had this irrational sense of fear for my life.” I’m like “Yup. And?” But yes, the silence is deafening. When we look at the level of creeping fascism in our country, it’s wrapped in supposedly patriotic values, it’s wrapped in the flag, and it’s holding a cross. Speaking of good Christian values, we have to realize those same good Christian values came and practiced genocide. That’s still going on.

We look at those good Christian values that promoted institutionalized slavery as a thing that was a mandate from God. You know, the foundation of our country is built on that and we have not come to grips with that. Chicanos are proud of their heritage. African Americans are proud of their heritage. White pride is completely different than someone being proud that they’re Italian. That’s based on culture. My first boyfriend back in New England was Italian. Fabulous culture. His dad is still one of the finest men I met in my life.

I’m an American of African, Irish, Sephardic, Jewish and Cherokee descent. I’m your basic American girl. This is what it looks like. Cowgirl boots and dreadlocks. I’m very proud of my Irish blood. There was an Irish politician speaking out against Donald Trump. That made me proud to be Irish. Though, the idea of white pride is not pride in a culture, it is pride because of the color of your skin and erroneous information. You’ve got those people who were in Washington going “heil,” and now they’re backpedaling.

Everything is dependent on this mythical European land of whiteness. That’s complete bullshit. We look at Algebra, which came from the Arab world. We look at so many things. Most Americans don’t know that our American Constitution is based on the Iroquois Confederacy. Native Americans gave us the basis for our Constitution and we are still are doing things like Standing Rock. The genocide and the theft and the kind of horror that’s being perpetrated on Native communities. The economic and environmental racism that’s still being perpetrated.

Today on Thanksgiving, [look] what’s happening at Standing Rock. I grew up in the land of the Pilgrims. I grew up where the man that started Rhode Island Colony, a man named Roger Williams from the 1600s, his house still stands. I’ve knocked on that door. But as a person of color I knew another story about the Pilgrims which I talked about in school. My mother’s a teacher and an educator and she let us know, “Here’s another story about America, little brown child of mine who I love and cherish.”

For years in my household, I boycotted Thanksgiving, and my mother allowed me to. They’d have the turkey, I’d go up in my room and have a sandwich. Friend would come over, and they’re like, ”You’re letting her boycott?” I’m like, “Yes, do you know the stats about life expectancy on the reservation?” I read Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee when I was 14 and barely made it out alive from that book. Books that changed me were, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, La Vida Loca, Johnny Got his Gun, and the Diary of Anne Frank.

We look at how the news shapes who and what we are. If we have access to a wide spectrum of ideas and perceptions, we can make informed decisions. I get my news basically online. I don’t have a television anymore. I have a box that watches movies.

I’ve never had cable television. I’ve always gone after all sides of the story to the best of my ability. Years and years ago when we had the invasion of Grenada, I had a roommate that was from Colombia. He had a shortwave radio and I would listen to information from the BBC. I would listen to information coming out of Cuba. I would listen to things coming out of Canada, all decrying what we were doing. In the morning I would wake up and there would be nothing in the news about it.

It was so bizarre. At night we would have access to this information via shortwave radio. Now I read the Guardian. I have access to information worldwide.

Do you think this 24-hour access has changed your sensibility regarding the content?

I have to be more discerning. I have to do more research. I have to be aware if I’m only consuming the news that tells a point of view that I’m comfortable with.

During this election cycle, I’ve been reading things about the disenfranchised coal miners. There have been articles that I’ve read from a right-wing conservative place. I wanna understand that perspective. I need to know about it, whether I agree with it or not. I can empathize in places. There was a wonderful article online that I read called, “The white flight of Derek Black.” His father is Don Black, the head of the white supremacist group, Stormfront. This young man had divorced and distanced himself from the white supremacy which he grew up in. It happened to shift when he went to a liberal college.

There’s a reason why higher education opens up your mind. I want to be well informed. I want to know what’s happening. I’ve been a student of history all my life. I’m lucky that I grew up in a family that read. My mom’s a teacher and a councillor. So I’ve always been reading.

Did you expect those election results?

I was horrified but not surprised. At the time, I was here in the studio working around the clock because I had a show to prepare for. Watching what happened to Bernie Sanders, watching the disenfranchisement of millions of voters, and watching the procedural thing that happened at the Democratic Convention that prevented his people from talking, it was a perfect storm of events.

I also looked at the arrogance and hubris of the DNC and Hillary Clinton. I voted for Hillary. I was glad to vote for Hillary. People projected onto Trump what they wanted to hear. What about his bankruptcies? Well, it doesn’t matter. He’s groped women. It’s locker room talk, really? So if someone groped your daughter, you wouldn’t mind? But I also think it was a whitelash against [the fact that] we had a Black man in the White House. When people who voted for Trump are now telling us to get over it, y’all did not get over it. The Tea Party came about even though it’s backed by the Koch brothers.

America thought all of this racism was pretty much done— “Post-racial America,” and “Obama, we have a Black President,” or “Shut up Black people, so what if cops are killing you? You probably deserved it,” or “Everything’s groovy.”

What’s shifted is social media informing Black Lives Matter. That’s nothing different. I’ve seen that go on all my life, that kind of killing of Black people. What’s different is white folk got to see it and we got social media. That made a profound impact. But there’s still people who are looking at that going, “That’s not so,” but that’s also consciousness evolving.

So we are at this incredible alchemical place where that connection and social media elected Barack Obama.

So who elected Trump?

Fear elected Trump. Despair elected Trump. Apathy elected Trump. Manipulation, Machiavellian manipulation elected Trump. Hatred elected Trump. Whiteness elected Trump. Misogyny elected Trump. Fear of the “other” and xenophobia elected Trump. Fear is the great control frequency. The Founding Fathers of this country never expected you and I to have this conversation. They never expected Raechel and I to be connected. They did not expect me to be a sovereign individual with my own rights, trusting my own intuition, and my own knowledge. But here we are.

How did all those fears build up? Where are they coming from?

I think they’re coming from a world changing. White America still hasn’t come to grips with the feminist movement. You know I’m tired of men telling me what my role as a woman is. I am not defined by my uterus. I am defined by my heart and my brain and my being and my character.

You’ve got the patriarchal construct of the world. You look at fundamental religions where they’re predicated on, “Let me control you.” When you want change, you empower women. It will create a seed change of incredible magnitude. We talk about facing the rape culture in the world.

How do you think we could involve the media in building down, not building up, all those fears?

By telling other stories. The news has been focused through the lens of white men and the concerns of white men. You are here interviewing me, an African American woman, a many-blooded woman, listening to what I have to say. The world needs all of our stories. In the midst of my incredibly busy season, there were times that I would take sometimes a couple of hours and post stories about Standing Rock.

This is an historic gathering of Indigenous people from around the world. We’ve got people from South America coming up. We’ve got the Indigenous First Nations people gathering. On December 4th, we’ve got a deployment of veterans who are coming to gather. We’ve got over, I think, 200 nations have gathered and created community. It was started by a Native woman. What they are arming themselves with is prayer, dance, ceremony, community, and stories.

With the idea that seven generations down the line matters, that water is life, there was a media blackout. You know what put it on the forefront of popular media? Social media. There’s a phrase that I use. We are the media. We are the media.

Can you tell me what sources you’re following to debate and discuss these topics in the African American community?

I follow Black Lives Matter. I follow Urban Intellectuals. There are a lot of sites that I follow. I follow them on Facebook. Um uh. The Black Atlantic Star.

Following the story of Sandra Bland just hit home for a lot of us. I think it was the day before yesterday, there was a young Black teenager who accidentally bumped into a white man in the store and when they walked out, they had a few more words and the white man took out a gun, shot him, and he’s dead.

What it takes to watch videos of Black people shot. What it takes to read the stories of people being choked. There are times when—see I can barely talk about it—to watch all those videos, I can’t. Then there are times when I do because it’s important to witness it. It’s important to put it out there because it’s nothing new in my life.

If you were a journalist today, what would you cover and how would you cover it?

I would be covering Standing Rock. Black Lives Matter is at Standing Rock. I would be covering the coal miners. Coal is never coming back.

What format would you use?

It would be online. There’s also something important about speaking face-to-face, about looking in the eyes of someone who perceives you as different and finding common ground. I would also host town meetings where perhaps there are powerpoints about things that are going on. I would tell stories in whatever conceivable format, but stories that we don’t get to hear.

We don’t get to hear about what’s going on on reservations. My Native brothers and sisters are being killed at an alarming rate. The suicide, there’s an epidemic of suicide on the reservations. There’s poverty that rivals third world countries. We don’t know about it. I remember years ago when Oprah had her show, she was talking that she didn’t know this and I’m thinking, “How can you, a well-informed highly intelligent Black woman, connected to the media, not know of this?” So I would tell stories so that we can see who we are.

So fighting against the silence?

Fighting against the silence. I speak up. The only way that we change things is to know about one another and to know that there’s more in common. Let’s be real, divide and conquer is a great scheme for the less than 1 percent that own the world. There was a chart that was done that all the corporations in the entire world were basically owned by eight corporations, maybe it’s five.

How do you explain the complete misdirection of the election regarding the media’s point of view?

Media’s bought, that’s why we need an independent media. We need a free press. Those little white supremacists, when they have their little meeting in Washington, they talked about the free press in a sneering smarmy way. They used a German word for it, and I’m sorry I don’t remember what it is, but they laughed at it. The whole idea that you funnel information through a tiny funnel to control the populous. Then you ramp up fear and you turn them into sheep. Baah. The only reason why mainstream media is paying attention to Standing Rock is because it was all the hell over social media.

I like to think that I had a part in that, trodding my stories around the world to friends in different locales. This was historic, it still is. You look up the deafening silence from the White House? Shame. Shame. Shame.

“We weren't protesting death, we were honoring the passing of someone.”

You are an artist?

I am an artist, yes.

Can describe your work a little bit?

I am an artist, a musician, singer/songwriter, and actor. My visual work is mixed media. I work in mosaics, I do murals, and I also do huge public art. I’ve got two big pieces of art in Los Angeles. I’ve got work all over town.

Can you talk about the All Souls Procession a little bit?

I’m also involved in All Souls Procession, which is a unique Tucson event hosted by Many Mouths One Stomach and Flam Chen, an extraordinary fire theater company that’s based here in town. I’m the director of the spirit group and that’s the group that collects prayers as we process through town. We collect prayers for people who are writing love letters for loved ones who passed on. It’s a way to honor the dead.

It’s not exactly like Día de Los Muertos, but it’s an offshoot of that. It’s a way that we’ve come together. This year we had 150,000 people that came in. It’s huge and all funded by independent people in the community. I think this is the year we have our first small grant from the city. We have no corporate funding whatsoever.

Since when has the procession existed?

The procession is 26 or 27 years old. I was in the very very first one, which was started by Susan Johnson, and a group of maybe 30 to 50 artists that processed in the street. Now it’s this huge event that draws people from all over the world. I think this is my eighth or ninth year.

Going back to 30 years ago, how did you collect those love letters?

Back then there wasn’t as much collecting. It came out of Susan Johnson, who is an amazing painter here in town. Her father passed away and she wanted to do something to honor his passing. So she got a group of us together and we thought about our response to death. We typically live in a culture that views death as the enemy, not as a holistic part of life. Let’s keep death at bay, let’s keep pain at bay. She wanted to do something that would honor and embrace that and help her grieving process. We’re not taught how to grieve. When you love deeply, you grieve deeply. We’re just relearning.

We didn’t have any permits. We just kinda commandeered the street cause we were artists and that’s what we do.

Would you say it was also a sort of protest or an answer to a certain time?

I think it was an answer to a certain time, it wasn’t a protest. It was a parade and a gathering. We weren’t protesting death, we were honoring the passing of someone, and then by our involvement, honoring the people that had gone before us. Now, the procession, it’s not a protest, is an honoring of that longing. It’s an honoring of what we call our beloved dead who are on the other side.

Is it mixed cultures and mixed religions?

Completely mixed. You can be as far right as you wanna. You can be all the way left. We all have had people who have died. I have a beautiful friend who says we are all packing for the same journey. We don’t put any stricture on who comes because the parade follows us to the urn—we have an eight foot urn.

We have small urns and we collect the prayers. We put them in the big urn, then we process to a finale sight and there are aerialists, fire theaters, and projection. Then that 8-foot urn is hoisted in the air and all of those prayers are then burned in front of a crowd.

How does the local media cover the procession?

We didn’t have a lot of local coverage [back then]. Now what happens is we’ve got live streaming and media people that take photographs so it’s very well covered. You can find movies and photojournalism about it online.

It’s still kind of a hidden secret in Tucson. There’s still loads of people that don’t know about it. Money-wise, it brings almost 8 million dollars into town.

How is the media’s voice in its coverage?

It’s been very open and appreciative. There’s some folk who view it as this big party scene, but by and large, people come down to witness the spectacle. I talk about it as a hybrid. It’s neither performance nor ritual, but a combination of both.

As humans, we’re deeply ritualistic individuals. We need ritual. We live in a society that’s very mechanized and doesn’t honor those things. This is ritual that’s grown up. I think it answers a very profound need, that need for pageantry, that need for interaction between us and great mystery or the divine or whatever it is to you.

People show up with pictures of their loved ones who’ve passed away. Sometimes they hold candles. Sometimes they're dressed as the skull face. We’ve got people who are in the parade after us who make alters to animals. We have a procession for children called the procession of little angels, for children who have lost their pets, their grandparents, their siblings. It’s geared so that we can grieve together and celebrate together.

Who is reading the letters? Is somebody reading them or is it silent?

It stays silent. When people hand over the prayers to us, we don’t read them. We put them in our little urn, then we put them in the big urn, and they go up in smoke.

Sometimes they’re letters that people have written beforehand. Somebody put in an uncle’s favorite sandwich. Somebody who’s a very dear friend of mine, when her marriage was over and she divorced, she put in her wedding gown.

You can never tell the intersection. Since I’ve been doing it, I’ve lost my uncle, my last remaining aunt, my cats, my cousin that I grew up with, and my father has passed away. This summer someone who is infinitely dear to me died. We walk so that we can mourn and grieve together.

How are local religious institutions reacting to it?

Well one of my people was told by a woman who came from a Christian church that we were Satanists. She explained to her what we’re doing, this woman [then] came to the procession, went back and said we’re not doing devil worship at all. This year, again, we had a Christian church that would not come to the procession itself because they saw it as something that was against their religion. But afterwards, they came behind us and cleaned the streets up as an act of service.

I think because we’ve kept it inclusive. We open up when we get to the finale stage. We have an extraordinary Aztec dance group that dances and burns sage and things like that. We have performers from all over the world that Flam Chen picks that create the music. We’ve kept it open and inclusive and we’re not talking about God or the Goddess. I primarily worship the divine through the feminine, but I’m not putting what I believe on anyone else.

You can come and have your deep profound connection with Jesus, I will take your prayer and be honored to take them as a sacred object and put it in the urn.

How do you feel as a collector [of prayers]? It’s a very significant symbolic role and position.

You also have to fine tune the nervous system because we’re the object of intense energy.

We’re talking about death once a week. We all feel deeply moved to do it. For me personally, I feel exalted and profoundly humbled to be able to participate in something that serves my community.

Do the people talk to you after the procession?

Sometimes they do. I’ve had people afterwards get in touch with me on Facebook and say, “I didn’t realize that was you.” A couple of years ago, there was a woman, I think her mother had just passed away. I saw the picture, stopped, and held her gaze. Part of our thing is to hold that gaze—those microseconds of looking deeply into someone’s eyes as we collect those prayers—to where they can feel that they’ve been seen and felt.

When we get into our costumes once we leave our rehearsal space, and on the day of, we don’t speak. We all process in silence.

How would you imagine a procession regarding the media and election results?

The procession will go on in the format that it has. We are not going to shift that out of fear. We are not going to shift that because of the election results. Toni Morrison talks about, when you’re an artist, your job is to create art. There’s a phrase that I love. Loosely paraphrased, it’s that art is knowledge and information, back from the spiritual realm, and made tangible for the rest of us.

It’s no accident that authoritarian regimes and fascist governments and dictatorships go after the artists. It’s not an accident that that happens. There’s a clampdown on free expression.There’s a huge fight for our imaginations in this moment. It’s not an accident that we have movies that talk about dystopias. Because again, that lowers the bar of what you can expect from your future. But if you can look at a glittery, shiny, inclusive future then by god, you look at where you’re at now and you go, “Wait a minute, if I wanna get there, I have to do a whole lot of changing here.”

“I'm stunned by the trajectory from that bird on Bernie Sanders's podium to President-elect Trump.”

How do you imagine news in the future will be consumed?

Oh that’s such a lovely question. Let me rhapsodize. I imagine a world where there is huge independent media. I imagine a world where being a journalist and telling stories is a sacred and profound act. Perhaps there could be a bank, a social media bank where there’s stories [to] listen to. Like if you want to know about the different ways to garden, you could tap into that. But Indigenous gardens and knowledge from Indigenous people. Like one time when I was traveling, I was thinking wouldn’t it be great— cause we were looking at the die-off of bee colonies and at the poaching of and killing of elephants—if we had a thing called the counsel of all animals? A website where all information about ecology is put in a central location.

The idea that there could be a social media bank where you could hear stories and life stories of someone who was born in the Amazon and what their concerns [are]. You could maybe follow a family as they grow and develop and follow a child, who’s now 25. Who are the Sámi people? There’s a group of Sámi people that came to Standing Rock, by the way.

Looking at the nexus of where cultures combine and connect. We talk about intersectionality. Where is that intersectionality as we ask people what’s the story of someone who’s a bushman? What’s their story? Facts and figures don’t necessarily tell you the truth of something.

Often when I travel around and do work, when I do murals, I’m the only one like me in a community. It comes from storytelling and listening and the open heart. We look at being vulnerable as a liability. But being vulnerable means that in this moment, I share with you who I am, and there’s a connection that can be made. That when someone says something down the line about, “Oh those stupid niggers,” or something, that in that moment you will say, “Wait a minute,” and that my face will come before you.

When people of color talk about rotten white men, my husband’s white, there are people who stand at my back as allies who love me, who cherish me, who are white. When someone says fascism is sweeping over Europe and Europe doesn’t care, it’s like, I will hold your face in front of me. This is how we change the world. One heart at a time. One conversation at a time.

No matter what’s going on and what it looks like, I am optimistic and hopeful. Partially because there’s no other choice. I believe in love as a fierce action. That’s like gravity. Water made the Grand Canyon. I’m also a Scorpio so I’m a water sign. Water will flow around you. If you stand in its way, water will grind you down to sand.

If we love with that kind of fierce intensity, if we protect each other where your rights are important to me, where your being able to do this is important to me, and your being is important to me, then the contract is that my life becomes important to you.

Hopefully that can be the role of the media.

I believe that is the role of the media. The Civil Rights Movement changed because of those images. People could not sit silent in their homes and say, “I’m a good Christian,” or “I believe in Jesus,” or “We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal,” when there were dogs being unleashed on Black people.

The same thing is happening at Standing Rock.

Do you ever dream about the news?

Well several nights ago, I had a dream about Bernie Sanders. I dreamed that I was talking to him about what had happened, because I’m stunned by the trajectory from that bird on Bernie Sanders’s podium to President-elect Trump.

How did we get from there to here? I was talking about that with him in the dream. He was trying to be very gracious about what we can do to change this, “to make sure that Trump is not in the White House.” I don’t believe that we can. I believe that things can happen in the eleventh hour, in the hour where it’s 5 minutes to midnight.

I was asking him these questions and he was being very diplomatic, that we’ll we have to work towards this, and grow government up from the community level. In the last part of the dream, I asked if there is something we could do, and he looked me dead in the face and he went, “Yes.”

And then I woke up.

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