About MichelleMichelle Brown is an author, activist & public speaker who believes in common ground for all people.
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Category Archives: Arts & Entertainment
Printed 4/30/2015 in Between The Lines issue 2318
I’m always surprised by the reactions of people when I tell them I have been (more than once) to the Michigan Women’s Music Festival.
Most often the response is either, “You went?” “You camped?” or, after thinking about me/my life while shaking their head, “Of course, you would go!” Then the real questions begin – were there many black women there? You slept in a tent? Did you get naked? But most often, the question asked is why I, a self-proclaimed lover of all things urban who considers “roughing it” staying at a hotel without room service, would go the Michigan Women’s Music Festival. My response generally involves telling the story of my first MWMF!
I went primarily because Shea Howell was going. Everyone has one of those friends who they would follow anywhere, who strongly impacts their life and who they straight-up, unashamedly, unconditionally love. Shea is my person. The Meredith Grey to my Cristina Yang, you might say. We’ve worked on many things together. We marched together. We summered together. So when she said I needed to go to the festival, I was ready.
Shea and the rest of our group went up before I did earlier in the week. I was supposed to drive up with a mutual friend on the weekend who had attended before and knew the location of the spot Shea et al. camped at every year. The festival is on over 600 acres; I needed a guide.
That Friday, when we were supposed to leave, my guide was nowhere to be found. Made a few calls and discovered that she had left without me. Undaunted, I threw my gear into the car and headed toward Hart – a little cranky, but I had plenty of time to get there before dark.
When I arrived, culture shock kicked in. I was a “Festie Virgin.” I had no idea where Shea was camped, and I had all this junk to lug across a huge parking lot into the woods and I didn’t know where I was going!
I walked and as I walked, I got angry. Angry at my guide who had left me and angry at myself, but then the magic of “The Land” began. Women came up to see what was wrong. They took my bags. They set about finding my friends. They comforted me and made me feel welcome. I was part of the sisterhood.
We came from different socio-economic classes. I was African-American while most of them were white. We had each experienced patriarchy, but many of them had also experienced a privilege I never would because of their race. But on “the Land” it didn’t matter – we were all womyn/sisters.
They didn’t just drop me at the campsite and forget about me. They checked in on me, helped me navigate the showers, pathways and workshops. We danced naked under the moonlight.
That weekend and at the other festivals I attended in later years, I learned what it was like to be in a space created by, for and about women. It was empowering.
After I tell people about my first trip, I go on to tell them about the women who build everything! The women who not only make sure the land is handicap accessible but help women with disabilities experience the festival fully – pushing wheelchairs, getting meals, etc.
I tell them about the marvelous feeling of walking clothed or naked amongst your sisters, feeling truly beautiful just as you are with no “body shaming.” I tell them about the acceptance and respect for each other and different lifestyles. And how being in this space opened my eyes and helped me evolve as a person of color, a woman and a lesbian – to think differently, to challenge patriarchy and to, more than ever, stand in my truth.
I had experienced a freedom that every girl/woman should have the opportunity to experience in their life – a freedom that can gird us for the fight that continues for full equality. However, it was because of the lessons learned that I stopped attending.
The lessons you learn on “the Land” go home with you, some short-term while others for a life time. It was during these years that my LGBTQ family increased as I met and became friends with many transgender sisters and brothers. One day while having coffee with a friend, she said, “I just want to be accepted as me. You have no idea what it’s like to be judged by how you look.”
I thought back to that day wandering around in the woods. Someone could have looked and seen this angry black woman wandering about, turned and walked away. Instead, they saw our commonality, our womanhood, our humanity.
When I arrived on “the Land” I was welcomed as a woman with the understanding that my path to womanhood was unique, but we shared a humanity.
We were different, yes. My path had been different from my Trans Sister, but here we sat sisters in struggle. Here was a member of my community facing the challenges in our woods of oppression, trans-phobia and discrimination. Her safety, her protection, her equality was on the same path as mine. We — all of us in the LGBTQ community — are on that path.
The times they are a changing. We know that gender is more than chromosomes. More of our children are declaring that they are transgender at an earlier age. Too many of these children are dying often at their own hand because we are still defining masculine and feminine by what’s between their legs.
We are one community – LGBTQ – still discriminated against, still under attack. It’s time we have dialogue on the core values our community will embrace for ourselves, our children and generations to come that must include respect for our diversity and inclusiveness for all members of our community.
I was deeply saddened to hear this is the last Michigan Women’s Music Festival. It has changed hearts, minds and lives. It provided a transformative space for women to grow as women where we can find and live our truth. Strong, empowered women can not only change the world but also the boys/men who live in the world. The loss of this space and its potential for transformation, growth and change is a loss to our entire community.
By Michelle E. Brown
Printed 2/5/2015 in issue 2306 of Between The Lines Newspaper
History by definition is the branch of knowledge dealing with past events. Dig a little deeper and many dictionaries expand the definition to include the “continuous, systematic narrative of past events as relating to a particular people, country, period, person, etc. usually written as a chronological account.”
Really, history is just us telling our stories, but like most stories, the narrative and the outcome often depend on the teller. The bigger, the bolder, the more powerful the storyteller, the more likely it is that that person’s narrative will become the history — right or wrong, no matter how distorted. It will be what people remember.
I have always been a lover of history. I’m the one who will have a list of all the historic sites and go on all the historic tours on vacation. I’ve even been told that sometimes I know more about the area than the “natives.” But, I am also the one who slips away from the group to find the residents of the area to spend time hearing their stories, their remembrances of history.
You see, as much as I love history, at an early age I learned that the “official history” is often told from the view of the beholder and is often not accurate or inclusive. Fortunately history is not solely limited to “historical” records. Depictions of life, love, labor are also passed down through art, music and spoken word.
I would scour the pages of my early history lessons looking for faces like mine because too often it seemed all “important” historical roads went through Greece, Rome and then Europe with just a brief mention of other cultures.
Although the words told one story, images — art, maps, museum pieces — showed that the great pyramids were in Africa. Hannibal of Carthage, despite theatrical portrayals, was a person of color. Brown, if not black, in hue.
For years, the African-American story was shaped by distorted narratives. The memories erased and squashed by the brutality of slavery, but stories of our resilience and strength, even when not included in traditional historical accounts, have survived.
During a visit to Chicago’s DuSable Museum of African-American History, the curator drew our attention to different pictures, asking what we saw. In our childish naivete, we said, “Those are pictures of slavery.”
He encouraged us to look deeper, to see beyond slavery and recognize the artisans, craftsmen and builders responsible for building the infrastructure of this country. Enslaved, yes; denied rights and freedoms, yes; but undeniably there in history for all to see if your eyes were open.
Even when African-Americans were forbidden and, often under threat of brutality, denied access to education, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) served the black community. In fact, until the 1960s, HBCUs, were practically the only institutions of higher learning open to blacks in the U.S.
HBCU graduates from the past to today include Mary McLeod Bethune, W.E.B. DuBois, Patricia Harris, Thurgood Marshall, Alice Walker, Samuel L. Jackson, Wanda Sykes, Oprah Winfrey and Common.
While living under segregated conditions, denied access to basic civil rights and, for the most part, being ignored in the historical narrative of the United States, African-Americans like Charles Drew, Elijah McCoy, Garrett Morgan, George Washington Carver and Percy Julian developed and contributed inventions that benefitted not only America but also the entire world.
Denied equality merely because of the color of our skin, African-Americans fought tirelessly for the equality of others. These warriors included Sojourner Truth, Margaretta Forten and Harriet Forten Purvis in the women’s suffrage movement; labor activists A. Philip Randolph and Norman Hill; and human rights activists Martin Luther King Jr. and Bayard Rustin.
From arts to literature, entertainment to politics, the legacy of African-Americans including Shirley Chisholm, Alvin Ailey, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, James Baldwin, Barbara Jordan, Ralph Bunche, Mae Jemison, Cory Booker and Barack Obama will ensure that not only American history but all history will come closer to a true “continuous, systematic narrative of past events” in the development of the human condition. Progress, yes, but the picture remain incomplete.
Just as in our childish naivete we looked at the pictures and saw only slavery, many want to look at black history and fail (or refuse) to see the members of the African-American LGBTQ community living, working and contributing not only today but also historically.
We were there on the plantation, in the classrooms, graduating from HBCUs. We were leaders during the Harlem Renaissance, breaking barriers on stage and screen, inventing and innovating. And as we marched for voting rights, to end segregation, we demonstrated, organized and participated as protestors in front of and behind the scenes.
We live today as parents, teachers, athletes, clergy and community members facing the same challenges, struggles and opportunities as other African-Americans, but because of whom we love, we are often forced to choose between being gay and black when talking about civil rights.
Being black and gay is nothing new. It is as old as yesterday and will continue tomorrow. It’s a part of history and stands at the intersection of all our struggles of equality.
In an address to the nation, President Ford, following the recognition of Black History Month, urged Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” That work continues.
One of the most memorable portions of President Obama’s second inaugural address was his “Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall” remarks. He said “We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths — that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall.”
As we celebrate this Black History Month, let us remember the contributions of those African-Americans who led in the background, who built the infrastructure without recognition, who marched for freedom and by their courage helped this country come closer to achieving its destiny.
And as we lift up these members of our amazing African-American community, let’s look deeper at the picture and see the faces of our LGBTQ African-American community who were standing on the front lines like “wild fruit hidden in open spaces.”
During this Black History month, as decisions on marriage equality await decisions in courts across the country, as thousands pack the cinema to see “Selma,” we have an opportunity to reflect upon the evils of discrimination and hatred and commit ourselves to doing better.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (George Santayana)
Michelle E. Brown is a public speaker, activist and author. Her latest book of poetry “Three Layers and A Brassiere” is available at bookstore.authorhouse.com
My new book of poetry “Three Layers & A Brassiere” is available for purchase online! Book signing is in planning stage but get your’s today and receive a special gift at the book signing.
Book Over view:
On a frigid November weekend in 2012, I took a trip to Toronto, Ontario, Canada. My plan had been to catch a train, hit the city and just wander about taking in the sights. I wanted a lost weekend, to wander around to find something—just what I really didn’t know. But these uncertain plans took an unexpected turn when, instead, I hitched a ride with a friend.
I met an amazing woman named Gwen who was in her eighties, and over the course of the weekend, she shared stories of her remarkable life. One afternoon, we were heading out, and her family, being protective as families can be, gathered sweaters, scarves, and jackets and proceeded to try to convince Gwen to put them all on. Her response: “I’ve got three layers and a brassiere, that’s enough to keep me warm.”
On the ride back to Detroit, I thought about Gwen her life and the three stages of life—childhood, adulthood, and those final days. Maybe all we need are those three layers, not all those mountains of things, just to see us through to warm our hearts, our spirits, and a brassiere to hold the memories.
On the 2nd and 4th Friday at the AFF Cafe, Store & More located at 290 W. Nine Mile. Featured artists and an open mic for up and coming artist. Hosted by Michelle Brown and China Palazzola.