Friday, April 26, 2019

40 Days of Enslaved Narratives

40 Days with the Narratives of Enslaved People

I hadn’t decided what I would do for Lent. As a relatively new Episcopalian ( I’m like, 7,) I’ve learned to give up less and take on more.

With the help of friends, I had already made and distributed coats for the homeless. I mentor millennials on the regular, and try to do my part to clean, defend and protect mother earth.

I had prayed and meditated, but nothing came to me. Then I heard two sermons that helped guide my path. One came from our rector, Michael White. He’d preached about the Weeping Time where 436 people were sold away here in Savannah in 1859. He talked about how close we are in time, and still, we don’t always remember.

The other sermon came from our deacon, Samantha McKean who talked about the Lenten season as a time when we go back through to recall, recollect and remember what we have endured.
After hearing both, I knew and understood what I was being called to. So, for the 40 days I read the narratives of enslaved people. I wanted to go back into the wilderness of the time of enslavement to hear the words of those who had made it to freedom.

At first, I wondered how I would get through it. I was angry, rightly so, but I was also appalled by the details that I had turned away from. As a sociologist and author, I had already spent a great deal of time studying that horrible period that is our history. I collect first edition books by and about slavery. Throughout the years, I have also collected the “bills of sale” of enslaved men, women and children and I have tried my best to write and speak the truth about the building of America with free labor on stolen land. Still, it is a different thing to submit one’s self to hearing the voices of those who lived that enslavement and another thing entirely to do so for 40 days straight.

The constant beating, raping and degradation was far too much for my psyche. Still, out of a sense of obligation I continued to read and when I did, something miraculous happened. I became ever so grateful for all my ancestors. My anger towards others turned its gaze on me and I was sorry for not spending enough time in gratitude and appreciation.

Then, the gratitude became the inspiration I needed to move beyond my own physical limitations; the chronic illness that had stopped me from moving beyond my limits. Each day, I got up to mediate and then exercise through the pain in my limbs and lungs and then I would read some more.
The reading became a part of me and everything else an interruption. I didn’t want to part from the voices in those books who literally left blueprints for freedom from absolutely anything; for if they could get past the lash, the dogs, cold wet nights, starvation and lack of direction, then surely, I could get through my New World mess.

I have continued to read these narratives and have added books about enslavement and Reconstruction as well. As I read, I am rewarded with a history that is replete with not only suffering, but also rich with survival. Each day, I feel blessed and in awe of the fact that through all of this, I am still here.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Me and Joe Biden

Me and Joe Biden


I try to keep these blog post free of politics, but sometimes, they creep in; then in others, like with this one, they are a part of my story. Here it is---

 With the help of my amazing Public-School educators, I was able to become the first in my family to go to college. Now, when I say, “first in the family,” I am not referring to just my siblings; I mean, my entire family.

Going from Wilmington, Delaware to Jacksonville University was a dream come true. An unknown wealthy benefactor had stepped up, promising to cover whatever my grants and scholarships did not. Still, I needed money for books, laundry, personal items and weekend meals. (I had signed up for the 5-day-meal plan to save money.) Additionally, I still had to help-out at home. The loss of the money that had come from my two cleaning jobs left a whole in my mother’s overtaxed budget. My mother worked double and even triple shifts at a nursing home that was run on a shoe string budget, so as soon as we were able, my six siblings and I all did our part.

After I made my way to college, my oldest sister, Myrna began to suffer from complications with diabetes. This was in the late seventies when the awareness and maintenance of diabetes was no where near where it is today. Myrna was my bright light. She was intelligent, independent and an artist. Her paintings were marvelous, but she made her living as a free-lance photographer. As my sister’s conditioned worsened, she became unable to work. Because she was unable to show up for her assignments, she’d lose the booking and eventually stopped getting calls completely.

In college, I did my part by working on weekends and after classes, taking cleaning jobs and anything else I could find. I did store inventories, braided hair, baby sat and even picked fruit.
Myrna had tried to get disability benefits but was repeatedly denied and often told, that she “looked and talked just fine.”

That’s when I remembered our Junior Senator Joe Biden.  He attended school events and would often visit with the pastor of my church to discuss ways to end violence and bring people together.

I wrote to him asking if he could check into my sister’s case. I told him that I was in college and on the Dean’s List, but I didn’t know how long I could keep up with school work and all my odd jobs.

This is when my two-week “affair” with the Senator began. Back then, we didn’t have cell phones and only a few of the wealthy kids had phones installed in their dorm rooms. For everyone else, you got a call at your dorm’s front desk. The person on duty would page you through an intercom system and you came down for your allotted 10-minute call. I remember my dorm-mates racing down the stairs to get to the phone, because the 10-minutes started when you were notified.

For two-weeks straight, Senator Biden called my dorm every single day. With all but the last call, I was either in class or on one of my odd jobs. When I got back to the dorm, I’d stop at the desk for messages and find that I had another call from Senator Biden.

“Bertice, your boyfriend called,” the desk attendant would say jokingly. Word got out on our close-knit campus that I was getting calls from a Senator and all my friends got in on the act.
“Did your man call today?” they’d ask laughing. “He’s not my man.” I would say. “Then why is he calling so much?” the inquiring minds inquired.

I didn’t want to tell my college friends that I needed him to help my poor family, so I just said that I didn’t know.

“Call him back.” They would say. I also didn’t tell them that I couldn’t afford to use the pay phones to make a call in the middle of the day.

Then one afternoon, I was in my room when Senator Biden called. “Bert—iiiice, it’s your boyfriend.” The desk attendant said laughing. I came flying down the four flights of stairs and was panting when I said “Hello.” Without waiting for much more, the then Senator and now former Vice President, Joe Biden went right to business.

“Bertice,” he said pronouncing my name correctly, “I’m proud of you. All of Delaware is proud of you,” he said. “You are breaking a cycle. I know where you’re from. That’s a tough neighborhood.” I could hear his pride and amazement.

“You are doing well,” he said, “But with all of your jobs, you won’t be able to keep it up.”
 Without waiting for me to say anything he continued, “I’ll make you a deal, if you’ll continue to do well in college, I’ll see that your sister is taken care of.”

With tears flowing down my cheeks, I managed to say thank you. He told me to keep up the good work and said good bye, and I sat stunned that a Senator was reaching out to help me. The desk attendant asked what happened, but I went back to my room and cried some more.

Just two days later, I got a message of an unexpected call from my sister. My family rarely called because we couldn’t afford it. I was surprised when I read the message that said to call back collect. I did and learned that our Senator had been true to his word. The day after we had spoken, someone hand-delivered a check to my sister for disability benefits. The check amount included the two years that she had been denied.

I no longer had to take odd jobs. Each month, my sister Myrna sent me money for food and personal items. I excelled in my classes and even became the first African American in the history of Jacksonville University to win the President’s Cup for Leadership. I went on to graduate school and earned a doctoral degree at the age of 26. My sister Myrna didn’t get the chance to see me graduate. She died from complications with diabetes. Before she died, she was able to get the care she needed, and I was able to soar.

This is the Joe Biden I know. I know him to be passionate about his people and true to his word.

Back when I was still an undergrad, I wrote to Vice President Biden and told him that if he ever ran for President, I would be on his side. I meant it then and I mean it now.
There is nothing like faith, but faith without works is dead. He believed in me and worked to make me know that my senator cared.

When I hear his name, I don’t think about his age, I don’t think of his international work. I don’t always think of him as Vice President. I think of that young junior Senator who was dealing with his own work and family but took the time to care for me and mine. I want to see a woman President, but if he wants a turn, I will be right next to the man who helped me have mine.

Monday, September 17, 2018

BE More

I’d like to think that I live fully, love deeply, think far and spend time being and becoming more and more creative every day. Still, I know that I can be more.

Please understand me, doing more, is not the point here; I believe that we can all BE more.
I’m going to keep this short, because I have some living to do, but I’d like you to start with the following.

Today and beyond, ask yourself, “Why, me, here, now?

What can this day bring and behold? How can you see and hear differently? 
The question of why, me, here, now is an invitation for life to reveal its purpose for you, to you. 

Who are you meant to learn from, to help, to serve? How can you change someone’s life, and who and how will they change yours?

When I ask this question and open my heart to the possibilities, life enables me to BE more.

Yup, that’s it, now get ta living.
Be you, be well, be more.

Bertice Berry, PhD.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

The Making of a Division

The Anatomy of a Division

My granddaughter, who looks just like my grandmother

Many years ago, when I had to decide on a topic for my doctoral dissertation, I was told to look within my own life and experiences. “Study something close to you, then step back and let the findings speak your truth,” my adviser, Dr. Liz Mullins told me.

I chose to study Colorism, The Impact of Black on Black Discrimination: Prejudicial and Preferential Treatment Based on Skin Color Differences.

The topic came easy. My family’s color ranged from “white enough to pass,” to “midnight black.” (By the by, over 30 years ago when I wrote my dissertation, there were 144 different ways to describe a black person’s color.)

I uncovered all kinds of things that had never been analyzed and the dissertation has since been the subject of documentaries, scripted movies, books and even lawsuits. However, one of my major findings has gone untouched. Understanding in-group divisions enabled me to better understand divisions across groups. Moreover, (when you have an advanced degree, you have to throw in a moreover every now and again,) I was able to understand how the tactics of the so-called dominant group were used to divide and consequently conquer members of the so-called non-dominant.

In other words, black folks have been using white standards of beauty to determine who was or could be considered beautiful. Of course, this system of stratification was not created by blacks, and yet, somehow, it was adopted and maintained within my own family. My mother would say “At the end of the day, we all black,” but that has not stopped outsiders from saying things like, “Are you sure that's your granddaughter, she looks white?

So, let me bring this to today; to a broader point.

America is being divided. We are being told to take sides. But there are more than 144 sides we can take on over 144 different issues. The tactics of the 1% are being used to divide and conquer the 99-percenters. As soon as we agree that we all belong and are beautiful, someone outside of the group asks, “According to which standard?”

Is this divide of our own making? We know the answer, but those same outside forces tell us that this is not true.

Stay connected people. Look deeply at the source of your schism. Is it based on anything real or is it someone else’s construct?

Folks who don’t understand colorism find it very difficult to believe, and in the future, people will wonder how the United States became so very divided.

Stay connected, because, “At the end of the day, we all black—American---human.”

Bertice Berry, PhD.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Living With Style

Do You Have Style?

Do you have style? Don’t answer too quickly and please don’t try to feign indifference. Style is more than what you think, and much more than the advertisers have indicated. Style is not about the labels you wear; it’s about the only brand you should promote.

Your style should be "brand you." Style is about authenticity and your ability to express who you are by what you wear and how you rock it. 

Like it or not, we all have a style. So maybe the better question is this; is the style you’re wearing your own? Are your expressing what you intend to express? Have you cultivated a style, or fallen in with the masses? Fashion is that amazing medium with which we express our individuality and conformity at the same time.

I recently met a woman who exuded style. She lit up the room and brought joy to everyone in it, and she barely spoke a word.

Aloo Greer walked into the trunk show that I’d been invited to participate in. The space was filled with the creativity of its owners, Steph and Ty. Their colorful, unique hats have been worn by everyone who calls themselves a star and by anyone who emulates them. The space had other artists, including yours truly and it was filled with thoughtful fashionable and joyful folks. They were all  beautiful, artistic, eclectic, intelligent and spiritual. The gathering laughed loudly, looked deeply into one another’s souls and shared easily with their like-minded counterparts.

Everyone was beautiful, but when Allo entered we all stopped.

“Girl give me those shoes.” Someone called. “I want her bag.” Said another. “I need her to give me that hat and while she’s at it, she can slit those pants open, so I can get in them.” We laughed as we jokingly divided Allo’s garments. Each item was unique; nothing went together nor was it brought as a set. Each piece came from a different place and they all told a story. 

              Allo just smiled shyly and allowed her clothes to do the talking. I introduced myself and asked her to try on a garment. I told her that I’d like to see what it looked like on her. Allo bowed her head in reverence, took the garment and disappeared. When she came back, the gathering of the beautiful applauded. They stood around Allo and snapped pictures an made videos of her perfect poses. That same dress had been on my rack all along and no one had tried it, but when Allo put it on, everyone wanted it, or said that they had before.

              The next day, Allo came back and just before packing up to leave, I asked this quiet, yet joyful woman if she’d try on a few others. She did and again, the room was stilled.

As I pondered Allo’s ability to “wear the phone book well,” I realized that when it comes to style, Allo possessed the qualities we all desire.

  • She liked what she liked and gave more credence to her own style than to the style others.
  •  She walked with confidence and enjoyed the objects she'd carefully purchased.
  • Aloo combined pieces more like an art and less like a uniform.
  • She didn’t ascribe to someone else’s idea of what “season” she was, and what colors she should wear, nor did she think about where she could wear something.
  • He quiet presence and bold wardrobe choices make her a woman of style. 

Your style should be as unique as you are. You don’t have to wear what someone else demands, nor should you. Try on colors that you’ve been told to avoid. Add elements that speak to who you are and what you love. Be confident in whatever you wear and spend less money on trying to impress others and more time with impressing and loving yourself.

Be You, be Bold, be Joy.

Bertice Berry, PhD.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Can't Change Your Mind? Move to Your Heart

The 18-Inch Trip That Can Change Your Life

Several years back, I suffered a rather debilitating head injury. I’m fine now, but don’t ask my children. Anyway, in the process of what felt like a never-ending cycle of pain, confusion and misery, I learned several rather important things.

My mother told me, and I was thought it was true, but now I know for sure that thinking is hard work. New thoughts and ideas take more work than anything else.

It turns out that changing your mind takes more energy than heavy lifting. 
But, I’ve also learned something else; once you are open to changing your mind, it is much easier to do so the next time.

 Moreover, once you learn the first thing, the next thing comes much more readily. In other words, learning is not only fundamental, it is exponential; it becomes more and more rapid.

One of the most helpful tools I had during that period of recovery was a book called HeartMath. Researchers at the HeartMath Institute point out that the heart also has a brain and it is often much more intelligent than the one in our head. During that time of confusion and pain, I made a deliberate decision to move my reasoning to my heart.

As I did, a new world opened to me. My thinking was more compassionate and caring, but it was much more. I was open to new ideas and found it almost natural to try things that had previously caused confusion.

In less than a year, I learned to design and make clothes. I take long road trips, and when I do I travel the back roads and talk to locals about local things. Each new encounter is responded with love and compassion.

I still get flustered when my sewing machine “shows off,” and I am known to flip out when I am lost. But when I do, I take a short 18-inch trip from my head to my heart and I can see so much more clearly.
Be you, be well, be traveling.

Bertice Berry, PhD.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Combating Collective Fear and Anxiety

 Collective Fear and Anxiety

I’ve been giving a great deal of thought about collective fear and anxiety. More and more lately, folks are forming tribal alliances based on their fears.

The best defense lies not in keeping the so-called wrong people out, but in building confidence, purpose, love and kindness for the folks who are in whatever office group, family, neighborhood, city and country that you are in.

So, what is fear and what are we afraid of?

Fear is defined as an unpleasant emotion that has been caused by a belief  that someone or something is dangerous and likely to cause pain and harm. Anxiety is a feeling of worry, a nervousness or unease about something we perceive to be imminent, having an uncertain outcome. (Oxford)

What we perceive to be real often becomes real in its consequences.

My first after-college job was at a shelter for victims of domestic violence and rape. My second job was as a researcher with the Victim’s Assistance Agency in Jacksonville, Florida.

We served to assess and find ways to best serve people who were victims of crime. This was difficult and often depressing work. Each day I heard accounts of the horrors that victims had experienced, and I sought pathways and resources for healing.

One of my tasks was to help design a city-wide survey that would get a better perspective of the problems victims faced. To start, I created a high level open-ended city-wide questionnaire that would allow us to know what we should be measuring before we even began to measure it.

Several observations became more and more apparent. When I asked people what they feared in regards to crime, the list was long and intense. When I asked the level of fear, the response was great and again rather intense. But then when I asked about the number of times that thing had actually happened, I found something amazing; people who had not experienced the thing had a great deal of fear around it. 

Moreover, while they feared some of everything, they knew absolutely nothing about the resources and solutions that were available if something ever occurred. 
Folks had been buying smoke alarms but had no plan for getting out of a burning house.

In contrast, many of those who had experienced the crime intentionally sought and found ways to live without the fear of it happening again. They had surrounded themselves with love, determination and purpose. They participated in activities that made them feel secure in their own being and they intentionally sought out a healthy community that was not grounded in fear.
But those who had not experienced a crime were busy collecting data to prove that their fears were well founded. 

We have all been marketed and fed a daily diet of so much fear that we’ve become afraid of things that we have not and for the most part, will not experience. Don’t get me wrong, a healthy does of fear keeps us out of danger. However, when we believe that our locks need a lock for their locks we become prisoners in our own lives.

Our anxiety and more specifically, our collective anxiety is extremely high. We are afraid of our neighbors and the "others"; those folks we do not know. Instead of getting to know our neighbor, we collect data on how dangerous our neighbor is and seek ways to keep them out of our fortress. But I need my neighbors. I need them to expand my own perspective.

Instead of addressing out faulty thinking; our theoretical perspective, we go out and collect opinions, observations and poorly organized data to support our feelings and predetermined outcomes.
This is dangerous on so many levels.

This week try to step out of your fear and anxiety.

·       Take a higher view of the thing that is causing you to worry. What and who are you listening to?

·       Assess your paradigm, your theory, your point of view.

·       Be honest with yourself about your part in the problem you see. If you can’t see that you play a part, you won’t see that you have power to change the present and create a better future.

·       Create a plan for change.

·       Execute the plan.

·       Assess your progress.

We have the power to change the world around us, but first, we have to start with our own self.

Be you, be well, be purposefully fearless.

Bertice Berry, PhD.