Tuesday, April 14, 2015

I = I Can be White: A-Z Blogging Challenge 2015: History Stories and the Telling of Them

Quick Performance Update (next two weeks):
    Wed., Apr. 15 – Dana Middle School, AM, Hawthorne, CA (Betsy Costner Historic Character Presentation)
   Thurs., Apr. 16 – Anza Elementary School, AM & PM & Evening, Hawothrne, CA  (Oney Judge Historic Character Presentation; General Storytelling Program & “Words of Excitement” Evening Program for Parents)
    Sat., Apr. 18 – Stone Soup Storytelling Festival New Voices Showcase, Woodruff, SC; 11:30 am – 1 pm
    Mon., Apr. 20 - Performances for Rancho Solano School Student Tour Groups in Herndon, VA, 7:30 – 8:30 pm
    Thurs., Apr. 23 – Bobbitt Apartments, Norfolk, VA, 2 – 3 pm; General Adult Storytelling
    Fri., Apr. 24 – “Audience Management” Professional Development Workshop for Young Audiences of Virginia, Inc. Artists and others, Norfolk, VA; 10 am – 12 pm
    Sat., Apr. 25 – Portsmouth Community Colored Library Museum, 521 Middle St., Portsmouth, VA; 1 pm & 3 pm (“Words of Excitement” Storytelling Program and Workshop)
     Apr. 25, 28 - Performances for Worldstrides, Inc. Student Tour Groups in Williamsburg, VA.

     Other Apr. performances:   Oregon (Corvallis)
     Upcoming May performances:  California (Ojai, Fresno); New York (Westchester County); VA (Fairfax, Norfolk, Williamsburg), West Virginia (Shepherdstown)

You may have figured out that I am behind in the A-Z Blogging Challenge 2015, but I am determined to at least finish all the letters (although May might be my ending date).  Today don’t be taken aback by the title, enjoy!

I = I Can be White
"Flower Girl" by Margaret Bowland
see her website and other amazing pictures

I arrived at the job opportunity dressed in a fine business outfit and prepared to convince my two interviewers that I was the best for the position.  I went first to the lobby and the receptionist informed the specific department’s secretary of my arrival.  The secretary came to retrieve me and when she saw me, she greeted me and a small smile came across her face.  I caught it, but said nothing.  I was taken to the large office where I would be interviewed by two women – 1 white and 1 black.  As I walked in and they stood up, I noted the quick glance between the two of them, and the slight surprised smiles.  I walked up, shook their hands, introduced myself and said, boldly, “You thought I was white, didn’t you?”  They both laughed and nodded their heads.  I continued, “Well, they tell me I have a ‘white girl’ voice on the phone.”  I paused.  “Think I can use that as the new executive assistant for the department?”  I got the job!

Since college I have often been told about my “white girl’s” voice.  What does that actually mean?  It means that I speak “proper”, not with “ebonics” or in a “country” or “urban” style.  Whatever!  Although I don’t get offended by the nomenclature, and it is said to me by those who are African-American, it does make me wonder, why do we think people who are from a particular area have to speak a certain way.  On the other hand, I have seen how the voice has fooled people and they have given me things because of the “voice” and later been surprised when they met me face-to-face. 
Okay, so I may talk “white”, but what about the question I have sometimes been asked:  “Can I play someone of a different color?”  My usual answer:  “If you do so with respect then yes.”  But folks rarely take on the “risky” part.  However, one day I did. 

You see what happened was J:  I was scheduled to be the keynote speaker, presenting Ol’ Bess, for the New York’s Westchester Lower Hudson Council for  Social Studies Conference.  I arrived the evening before, but my luggage did not arrive with me.  [This was before I learned to keep my next day’s clothes/costume in my carry-on bag.]  Not only did my luggage not arrive, but it wasn’t going to arrive until I was ready to depart the next day AFTER my presentation would be complete.  Ugh!!  After much thought, and some great consultation with my colleague and Historic Character Presenter, Darci Tucker and her husband, Terry Yemm, I decided to do my first part of the keynote presentation with just my voice being heard over the speakers.  Although, my contact person (and now friend), Steve Goldberg, was a little leery about this, he consented.  I also decided to do a second section of the keynote speaker, representing a white teacher at Central High School, Little Rock, Arkansas during its time of desegregation in 1957.

The next day came.  Steve said something like, “sometimes we need to listen to the voices of the past”, and I began to sing in character and do my entire presentation over microphone without my presence.  I couldn’t see the people inside the ballroom, but Steve said that they were entranced – just listening, many with eyes closed.  They laughed at all the right parts and winced at the difficult lines; it was accepted splendidly, with many compliments on the uniqueness of the style.  I walked in as I sang the last song, and no one even noticed, until, as the applause was happening, I stepped to the front.  Then I said, I wanted to present another voice.  I did my presentation with the “voice” of a white teacher, seeing the outside mob and also despising to have to teach “those black children”, until she hears it:

“Then I heard the mob scream, ‘Can’t you just send out one?  Just one.’  I understood what the mob meant.  If only one was sent, they would string it up and no other blacks would attempt to come.  I watched out the window, as did my colleagues and the few students in the school, while “that child” sat in the furthest corner from us.  And then one of the teachers said, ever so softly, but with such conviction, ‘Can’t we just send them one?’  There was a silence and I was stunned….and then mortified.  What was happening?  We were teachers!  We were teachers!  We were to protect those we taught.  We were to teach them how to stand in times of trouble, to develop their characters and give them wisdom for years to come.  We…..were….teachers!  I turned to “that”…no, my student and we locked eyes.  I would be his teacher.”

After a great round of applause, several people came to me and said, “You know I never saw your color.”  And “You really were white.”  When presenting a good story, sometimes I think, “What’s color got to do with it?” 

Ellen Craft from
Underground Railroad
by William Still
Okay, one more story to add.  My friend and colleague, Sarah Brady, wanted to do a program about women around the period of the Civil War era.  She had the women she wanted to present, but did not feel like she could do justice to this time period without also presenting a slave.  She was told clearly that this would be inappropriate as she was white.  She shared with me her quandary and I immediately said, “Nonsense.” And I opened Underground Railroad by William Still [a phenomenal primary source, that is completely free online at, Underground Railroad by William Still] and showed her the picture of Ellen Craft (per many laws, even 1/16th of portion of Negro blood made you a Negro).  Well, of course, she portrays her and shares her story and has been marvelous, changing the view of what a slave looks like. 

So, go on, share the story that needs to be shared – and do it with respect.  And when you see me next, who knows what color I’ll be next!

Today’s Blog Question – Please feel free to answer the question in the comments below. 
What do you think of portraying someone who is not of your culture, color or heritage?  Would you be offended if you see someone doing that?  What about telling stories, particularly folktales, from other cultures than your own?  My personal feeling, tell everyone’s folktales so that someone will remember, but also share from which culture it comes.

What am I reading?  Currently reading “Passionate God” by Bishop Kenneth C Ulmer, Ph. D (my evening reading) & “Revolution in World Missions” by K. P. Yohannan & “Angels Make Their Hope Here” by Breena Clarke.  Line from “Revolution” that I had to share:  He [God] blesses us for a purpose.”

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