Last month I began taking a community theatre class here in New Orleans. The course is a 14-week community based theatre project open to college students and community residents. The course consists of workshops on Black Arts Movement history in the South, performing arts, thoughtful readings and group discussions. The class is high energy and fun with an incredible mix of people from all different ages and backgrounds. But what I enjoy most from our course is the story circle.
The power of the story circle never ceases to amaze me. It consists of people gathering in a circle to share their personal stories based on a theme selected by our instructor. While one person speaks, the rest of the group has the honor of listening. Some stories are in the forefront of our consciousness, eager to jump forth to the group. Others have been tucked away in forgotten compartments of the mind. Together we sit, reflecting on the theme at hand: racism, poverty, meritocracy… and like magic, a bright light begins to beam on dark, hiding places within the soul. The circle breathes new life into the reality of each person’s shared experience. It validates. It affirms. It empowers.
One evening we finished a story circle on racism and our instructor asked us to take the exercise a bit further. We were to write a letter to a person that appeared in our individual story. It was here that the following letter unfolded from the envelope of my subconsciousness:
Dear Boy in the 2nd Grade Lunch Line:
It’s been years since this incident happened, but I remember it as if it were yesterday. We were standing together in the cafeteria lunch line as 2nd graders, waiting to be led back to our classroom.
You walked over to me and began singing, “Jingle bells, shocking shells, Granny had a gun. Pull the trigger shot the nigger………..”
That moment has stayed with me for years.
I wish I could have told you then how hurtful that was and how humiliated I felt. I was embarrassed. I was ashamed. I wanted to rid myself of my brown skin and crawl into a deep, black hole. Who could I tell? Who could I report you too? There was no one in my school that looked like me. No one who would understand how awful I felt. Your words paralyzed me. So I walked back to my classroom that day with my head down. In silence.
But if you were here before me today, I would stand tall. I would be amused by your song. I’d tell you that your singing was off key and that the Sand man was coming for you to take you off the stage. I’d tell you that no words, no songs, nothing had the power to ever make me ashamed of who I am. You see, I come from beautiful, courageous, and wise people. People who’ve survived indignity. People who’ve survived brutality. People with strong shoulders. Shoulders that allow me to stand up to you in this 2nd grade lunch line. I am a Queen. I am an Empress. I am Royalty. Your clever jingle, your attempt to harm ME will never prevail.
Besides in the words of Zora, “How anyone can deny themselves the pleasure of my company is beyond me.”
This free lunch, is over.
Yours in the struggle,