Rebuilding Black Communities, With Love

Recently, I was listening to an audio-taped interview with Ollie Gates, who is the owner of Gates Barbecue in Kansas City, Missouri. Mr. Gates is now 80+ years old, and he is the son of George and Arzelia Gates. Because of the efforts of George Gates, Gates Barbecue was officially established in 1946 in Kansas City, Missouri, and Ollie Gates is now an icon with a reputation that is much, much bigger than barbecue.

That interview, which I did not conduct, happened behind closed doors in February of 2017, and I actually had the chance to hear it in person. Mr. Gates was asked if his early cultural expressions of his childhood affected his life choices. In response to that question, he said yes; he also said out-loud that because of his environment [which was a mid-twentieth century urban ghetto designed as a segregated space for blacks in Kansas City] he was not “supposed to be a nice guy.” According to Mr. Gates, “…because of all the ugliness [in my community], I was going to be the biggest thug in all the world.” Obviously, he didn’t become a thug. As he continued to reflect upon his upbringing, both spatially and socially, he went on to say that he had to decide what kind of life he was going to make for himself, in spite of the early economic and spatial challenges for which he had no control. Today, Ollie Gates is the owner of six different restaurant locations; his barbecue and sauce and his reputation are celebrated worldwide; and he has now sustained six decades of entrepreneurial success of reinvesting his labor and wealth into the area that was once intended to keep black people “in their place.”

How did he do it? How did he come from a urban black ghetto and manage to become a successful business man and such a celebrated entrepreneur? Well, one thing that I learned as I listened to Mr. Gates talk about his connection to the historic 18th & Vine District in Kansas City, is that he never despised the fact that he is black, phenotypically and culturally. Deep down he embraces his heritage as a black man and he embraces the history of the space from which he came to inform his knowledge of self and business. As I listened, I found his attitudes and the love that he has for black culture very empowering and enlightening. As a womanist, who is dedicated to the progress and transformation of black people and black culture, I was inspired. To hear Mr. Gates encourage the redevelopment of 18th & Vine from a place of pride, authenticity and with a genuine love of being black in a world that despises blackness at every turn, I was deeply moved.

In the course of my travels nationwide and beyond, I have heard many talk about rebuilding black communities. As an urban planning professional and writer, I have read many books and articles about the redevelopment of black communities. I have also been in many rooms where I have heard from community leaders, developers, and politicians talk about how to revitalize former ghettos and declining areas. There, we have examined redevelopment in terms of bricks and mortar, and thus we have explored many scenarios for the rebuilding of former black communities, neighborhoods and businesses. We’ve talked about about landscaping, commercial and residential designs; we’ve explored the many ways in which space can be re-imagined or redesigned, brick by brick and block by block. However, many of the dialogues that I have been a part of do not consider the redesign of space and place in social and personal terms.

What I found compelling about Mr. Gates’s reflections on the historic Kansas City 18th & Vine area, was that he is first and foremost proud of himself and he is not ashamed of where he came from. And, despite his ability to move beyond the spatial boundaries of 18th & Vine, he never abandoned it. On the contrary, he has dedicated his life to putting his community-building efforts back in the area where he was born. And although I do not know him personally, and barely at all, after hearing him talk about his community in person, I sincerely believe that he has been able to do this because he came from a family and a community that loved him. From within a once segregated and abandoned space, Mr. Gates found love for himself and he has built his business upon that love. Openly, he credits the love that he experienced from his family and his former community as the motivation for his efforts to revitalize Kansas City’s 18th & Vine community that exists today.

The concept of love has been an important topic for me. In fact, in 2012, my essay on a concept known as “loving attachment,” which is a feminist and theoretical approach to urban and regional planning, I explored the way in which planners can operate with communities and others from a place of love and attachment. Personally, I know the power of love and what it can do for the human psyche. In fact, I’ve said it before and I will say it again: a good, healthy love can make you fly. Yet, in many of today’s urban ghettos, especially black urban ghettos, there are many children and adults who do not know the transformativeness of love or its power. As a certified substitute school teacher and as an urban college professor, I have found, more times than not, that children and adults who live in today’s black urban ghettos know subconsciously that they were/are abandoned by those who did/do not love them, including municipal officials and developers. In meeting after meeting, I hear from black urban ghetto residents who do not know or feel the love that comes from an entire community of people taking pride in themselves and in what they have, even if what they have spatially is minimal or even deficient. Over and over, they do not express the sentiment or the belief that what they have, socially, personally, and culturally, is of far greater value than the spatial attributes and boundaries that they inhabit. The ghetto spaces where they live are not as they were some fifty or sixty years ago; they are categorically different and much more commodified than they were back then. And, as a general rule, they are perceived as spaces that are loveless and unlovable.

As an advocate for good urban and regional planning, I am quite interested in exploring the importance of love as it pertains to community and economic development. I wonder how many black communities could be revived if the people who used to live there were to invest in the places and spaces that they used to call home. I am curious to find out if being attached to a place in a loving and familiar way has or could lead to actions that can transform the places and spaces that were meant to demean and discourage former residents. I fantasize what could happen if former residents of those places might be courageous enough to do the unthinkable with their resources and their power on behalf of the urban places that have been repeatedly abandoned.

Upon hearing Mr. Ollie Gates, I heard something, and it is something that I have known for a long time and in many different aspects of my life. That something is that at the end of the day, there is only one thing that can change things for the better. That something is love. And, when black people love themselves and their communities enough to reinvest their money and their wealth in those communities, I wholeheartedly believe that we will see a change in how those communities look, feel and operate. But, as long as we do not invest in those places from a genuine place of love for black culture, or if we only wish to exploit them for momentary satisfaction, they will continue to be loveless, and possibly hopeless places to be. Indeed, every now and then a developer with the right amount of money might come along and put up a new sign or a new face, but the development of a former ghetto area will not be sustainable without the love and embrace of a community. This type of love, that is born and nurtured in culture and community, cannot be found in bricks and mortar and it cannot be manufactured via lending institutions; the love and respect for culture is only found in the strength and expression of a people and persons, like Ollie Gates, who unabashedly value and love themselves. No person can survive the ugliness of this life without the love of self and the love of a community. And no community can be sustained without the love of those who once lived there or without the love of those who live there today.

So, when it comes to rebuilding black communities, we have to consider the power of love and culture, and we have to know that a sustained effort at revitalizing former and current black ghettos has to come from the people who are willing to embrace it as their own and as declared in the words of the great Ossie Davis, from those who know that the that the best of being black is yet to be:

Be not deceived

The struggle is far from over

The best of being black is yet to be

So said the ones who died

To set you free.

© 2017 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

My Thoughts on Mother’s Day: Reposted

I posted this on Facebook four years ago. Decided to share it again.

 

A lot of people are posting for Mother’s Day, calling for an appreciation for their mothers and the sharing of their happiness that is related to their mothers, which often translates into a monetary purchase. I get that. However, there are many motherless children, and there are those who do not feel happy or good about their mothers. Not all mothers are willing or able to be there for their children.

Every woman is NOT naturally good at being present and loving towards her child. Some women fail miserably at motherhood and parenting. The view that every woman is capable of loving a child because she has the ability to bring one into being is a myth propagated by patriarchal thinking that says that all women MUST desire to bear children and thus aspire to become mothers. Of course, I am proud and thankful for the women and mothers who indeed are present and loving (esp for the ones in my life), but the truth is that many women are NOT present or loving, and to give them credit that they have not earned or do not deserve is something that has always been painful for me to watch amongst my friends and family.

Today [Mother’s Day 2017], please be conscious, especially as you wish others a “Happy Mother’s Day,” that this day is quite constructed for socio-economic purposes, and that that kind of widespread promotion, which encourages a kind of groupthink, silences many and compels them to follow the crowd and lie to themselves as to how they really feel about their mothers and thus about themselves. This Mother’s Day is expected to gross more than $23.6 billion dollars; perhaps the most ever in U.S. history.

If you love and appreciate your mother, honor her, first and foremost, with a life that is lived everyday authentically you and human! And, if there is little to no love between you and your mother, be true to yourself and your experience with your mother by finding an honest way to honor and give voice to the feelings you have about your mother and your experience with her.

© 2017 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

Why I Didn’t Get Married

Wrote this over a year ago, and it is still relevant today. Very.

annalisefonza

First of all, this blog is long overdue. I have been meaning to write on this topic for months, but I could never bring myself to do it with everything else that has been happening in my life for the last four to six months. But, from day one, when the words came to me, I felt that it was very important for me to blog about marriage. So, here it goes.

Frequently, I am asked about marriage. The closer that I get to being fifty years old, I guess, for some, it seems an appropriate question for a woman. And, for some, I suppose that it seems strange that a woman has managed to stay unmarried with no children in her adult life. I’ve been close to marriage once. It has been more than twenty five years since I was engaged to be married, but it was an engagement…

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The Significance of Saying “Thank You,” Today!

There is nothing more powerful than being able to say thank you to the people who have inspired us in life and made our world richer and deeper. To do this while they are living – to say thank you in person – is most fulfilling.

Last night I had the opportunity to meet Dianne Reeves at the American Jazz Museum in person (and I took a picture, of course, that I will print and hang on my special “wall of fame” that I create at the next place I call “home”). If you don’t know who Dianne Reeves is, then let me invite you to know her as one of the greatest black women jazz vocalist, ever! Saying thank you to her, in person, is a moment that I will truly treasure. I was so very excited!

If you’d like to know where to start with Dianne Reeves, I recommend her live CD, In the Moment. But, that is just a starting point, and, it is absolutely, positively, not her first CD. I just like it because I believe it illustrates the power of her voice, live. Dianne Reeves is one of most talented and genuine jazz vocalists that I have ever known (and I have been lucky enough to meet a few jazz vocalists, such as Abbey Lincoln, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and Rachelle Ferrell). And I say that as a former radio host who spent three years producing a local radio program dedicated to black women jazz vocalists at WXOJ-LP in Northampton, Massachusetts (as well as a few good men jazz greats).

The significance of saying thank you to those who we admire and appreciate, in the moment (pun intended), is so very, very, important. Don’t wait until someone you admire or love is gone to say thank you. Take the time to do it, today; it will help you to see that your life is really not your own! Our lives have been made and re-made by many women (and a few good men) who have had the desire and the will to lovingly and creatively share themselves with us, in the moment!  And we should never underestimate the power of living and being in the moment.

© 2017 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

Women Have a Right to Love, Not Hate

Recently, I read an article published on Medium written by Anthony J. Williams. The title of his article, on the subject of women, was (smallcase intentional): women have a right to hate men. Indeed, there were many parts of this article that resonated with me. I thought that Williams did an awesome job of unpacking patriarchy and how harmful it is to us all, including men. And, I thought that Williams’s definitions of entitlement and male privilege were accurate and right on. However, in the end, I could not agree with Mr. Williams’s conclusion: that the hatred of men, also called misandry, is justifiable.

Yes, we, women, can walk around with hatred for the men who have hurt us, but where will that get us? What good is it to hold that hate in our minds and bodies? Feeling entitled to hate is a very patriarchal and primitive way of thinking. The idea that one has a right to hate anyone (as far as humans are concerned) has been articulated in the Bible through the concept or philosophy that most of us know as “an eye for an eye.” And, look around: hatred has been the dominant way of being as far as societies and governance are concerned. And yet, as dominant and even popular as this idea is today, the assertion that we are entitled to hate and thus revenge has rarely brought relief to those who have been wronged by others. Hatred is not a corrective measure; it is a feeling that often generates even more pain, suffering, destruction and even death. So, while it may not be all that popular to say this (because there are many people who think of the Bible as an authoritative source), it is nonetheless crystal clear to me that the idea that one is entitled to hate, which can be supported with early human and primitive knee-jerk philosophies, is maladaptive human behavior. Such a consciousness or mentality does not take us forward, rather, it takes up backwards (in time and in thought). No one who walks around with hate in her heart can heal. It is a heavy, heavy burden; and, as a way of thinking and being, it can and will have debilitating consequences for anyone who embraces it. 

My grandmother had every reason to harbor hate in her heart. She was rejected by society because of racism, and she was rejected by members of her husband’s family because she divorced him, my grandfather, who beat her. In the 1950s, it was very rare for a black woman to divorce a black man for domestic abuse, but she did it anyhow. And her relatives by marriage, her children’s own flesh and blood hated her for it. She could have easily returned their hate by claiming “an eye for an eye,” and she could have displayed a hateful disposition to those who despised her for standing up for herself. She could have also hated the many whites who despised and hated her simply for being a black woman. People hated her for escaping her abuser, and people hated her because of the color of her skin. 

This grandmother was my only living grandparent, and though we did not spend as much time together that I would have liked, the thing that I remember most about her was the love that she always displayed for herself and for her children, especially for her son, who is my father. In my mid-twenties, I became very aware that they loved each other very much. Now that I am in my late forties, I have come to realize that the love that she had for him laid the foundation for the love that he has for me and my siblings, and his love informs the how and the why I am able to love others, especially the men that I choose to love intimately.

I was a young adult before I really had an opportunity to spend time one-on-one with my grandmother. I remember driving out of town to spend the weekend with her; it was a lovely drive. My grandmother was a great cook and on that trip we sat down at the table together and talked alot, and then we finished our conversations in her living room, while she sat rocking in her favorite chair (which is something that my father does to this day). I also remember that she didn’t wear her dentures very often at home. That always amazed me, because it looked like she had them in nevertheless. But I digress. Not everything I learned from my grandmother was learned because of our personal visits. I learned a lot from my grandmother from my father, who despite our disagreements, has always given me his unconditional love. 

Because of my grandmother’s teachings, which came through my Dad, I learned that it wasn’t useful to hold on to pain and hate. I didn’t realize it then, when she was right there in front of me, but years later, I understood that pain and hate have their place. These emotions are a part of the human experience. Of course we all feel pain in life; it is normal. Likewise, I think it is normal that we acknowledge and express our emotions, wisely (and sometimes in a support group or with the help of someone who is trained in the management of human emotions). But, the good news is that bad emotions do not last forever, nor do they need to consume us, catapulting us into a downward, depressive spiral and perhaps into hatefulness or rage. Yes, it is important to be resolute and just in life, but, it is equally important to let go of the need to or the desire to dominate and hate those who have harmed or hated us. The longer we hold on to feelings of hate, the wounds deepen and the scars do not come because the hate keeps festering and in turn that hate prevents us from actually healing. And, in some cases, it is a sign that we have not truly let go of the person or persons who harmed us (i.e., we still want or need something from them).

So the question for me is: how do women face their enemies? How do we women find the strength to trust and perhaps love men again when we have many or even every reason to hate them? Well, as I have just expressed here, I think black women, especially elder black women, have a lot to teach us when it comes to the subject of men (and hate). In fact, I’d say that they have much more to teach us than men have to teach us about how to respond to the harmfulness and the hatefulness of men via patriarchy. I don’t have time to hate men or even a few of the men who have done horrible things to me. I also do not have time to hate men for all the horrible things they have done to women, historically. It is too costly to hold misandry in my heart and mind. Of course when someone has done something to take away your power and autonomy in life, it is normal to feel hate and to want to make them suffer or to make them pay for what they have done. In response to pain or violence caused by a man, especially when it comes to verbal, physical or even sexual abuse, I would say that hate is a very natural human response. However, another thing that the elder women (and a few elder men) in my life, including my grandmother and elder cousins, have taught me is that going with my first response is not always the best or most expedient thing to do. Sometimes it is best to go with the second or third feeling or thought.

By no means am I saying that one shouldn’t feel angry or hateful emotions; it is always important to feel (and name) our emotions. On the other hand, I am saying that it is not productive to feel entitled to anger or hate, because the sense of entitlement or a right to harbor these emotions can and often does lead to destruction. This is what I learned from the elder women in my life who were despised, abused, mistreated, and hated in their lifetimes: even though they could have justified their hateful and rageful feelings, they did not let those feelings own or consume them. They managed the emotions that they felt; and, they redirected their emotions in a way that enabled and empowered them to live their lives on their own terms, as much as possible. Although they read the same Bible that I have read, they usually did not return an eye for an eye, or a tooth for a tooth. Had they listened to the Bible’s 2000+ year old advice they may have acted on the hate they felt for men and for whites, yet they probably would not have been justified for doing so (as women and blacks are often not perceived as “justified” for acting on their emotions). It was the love and the wisdom of black women (and a few black men) who knew what hate could do to the human psyche that helped me to sort this out. Although I was raised to revere Christianity or the ideas promoting the presence of the supernatural, it was not religion, faith, the Bible, or even an alleged god that taught me how to manage my feelings. Rather, it was black women (and a few black men) who taught me how to get through pain and adversity. By their example, I learned the value of standing up for myself by living life on my terms, regardless of what others might have to say (negatively) about it. 

Without a doubt, we may succumb to hate, we may cower and feel like nothing because of the hatefulness of others. But, in the end, I also know that hate has never sustained anything good in the human being and not for any civilization. It is only love that has changed us (and the world) for the better. As a result, I cannot agree with Anthony J. Williams, who claims that women have a right to hate men. When it comes to men, and what women have endured at the hands of men, my position is that women must be much more concerned about feeling entitled to love than they are to hate. Hatefulness has permeated the patriarchal world that we live in. We see hate expressed every day, especially these days, through the rhetoric of the 45th President of the United States, Donald Trump and his staff. Every day they do something to remind us that they are  entitled to hate and hatefulness. On the contrary, I have no desire to behave like Donald Trump, his staff, and definitely I will not behave like his fans and followers, which includes the people who voted him into office. Even when wronged, I would rather not claim a right to hate because I know it will destroy me inside. I’d rather respond to the the hatefulness of men towards me and other women in the way that my grandmother responded to the hate she experienced in her life: with the resolve to stand up for myself and for women, and with the commitment to call attention to the destructiveness of patriarchy to the extent that it causes others to divorce themselves from patriarchal and hateful ways. My grandmother had six children to raise and when she divorced her husband, she did not have the luxury of feeling entitled to hate. She did what she had to do to distance herself from her haters, and she went on and she lived her life with as much joy and love as she could muster. She refused to let the hate and alienation she felt in life possess or consume her thoughts, her time, and her children, and thus, she taught them how to love themselves and their children. And love is one of the greatest gifts that a parent can give to her children.

Similarly, when it comes to men, and what they have done to me or to women, I do not feel that I have the right to hate them. I do not feel that I have the right to hate anybody because it is not worth it to hate anyone or anything that is just going to hate you back. If women are entitled to any emotion, I would say that women have a right to love, and we have a right to be loved as we want and need to be loved. This is, of course, in my opinion, but I am totally convinced that one of the best ways of doing justice, according to Martin Luther King, Jr., is finding and embracing the strength to love yourself, regardless, when hate is all around you.

 © 2017 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

On Thanksgiving and Other “Holy Days”

This week someone asked me how my Thanksgiving “holiday” went. I replied. Well, I don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, but of course I did eat, and I did enjoy the break. In reply to that she said, “Well, what about your family, did you go over to see them, etc., etc.?

 

Here is the thing. When I say that I don’t celebrate Thanksgiving that is what it means. I don’t celebrate it. That does not mean that my family member or friend doesn’t celebrate it, it just means that I don’t celebrate it. Period. Just because I go over to a family member’s house, or anyone’s household for that matter, does not mean that I celebrate it, or that by being there I must have celebrated it by association.

 

It is what I say it is. I don’t celebrate or recognize Thanksgiving no more than I would celebrate Christmas or Easter or any other holy day deemed important by any government or organizational entity. If I am over to someone’s house who celebrates a “national holy day,” it is often, quite simply, to spend time with that person at a time and on a day that is good for the both of us.

 

© 2016 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

 

After the Election of 2016: Disappointed, But Not Discouraged!

We live in a world and in a country that has been deeply compromised by violence, inequity and injustice. And, there are many reasons for that – not just one. I cannot and will not think that I have arrived, or that I am better than others just because I can pay my bills, and enjoy a fairly decent “good life” because of my accomplishments or because I am not white. I am not a good person merely because of the things that I have accumulated in life or due to the fact that I am black. Black is not synonymous with being good or better than white. It is not the binary opposite of white. I do not need white people or whiteness to be or know blackness. I am good because I believe that goodness is an essential part of being and becoming human. And, I happen to be both black and woman, yet neither one of these identities gives me the right or the privilege of saying that I am good. I am good because good is who I am.

 

Some humans, however, do not believe that they are good. They believe that to be human is to live in depravity or in what many have identified as “sinfulness,” or “wickedness.” For many to be human is to be cursed, damned and without redemption that can be obtained or gained on one’s own terms. For many, only a god – something or someone outside of themselves – can bring them true goodness or liberation. Indeed, I used to think this way because of the religious indoctrination of my childhood and youth, but I have spent the last decade or so trying to undo that destructive, self-sabotaging, anti-human way of thinking and being. I suspect that I will continue to unlearn those teachings and any others like them until the day that I die, which is fine with me. This is what it means to me to become human: to evolve, grow, and change.

 

The reality is that we live in a world that is very complicated and very monied. For most of us, if we lost the ability to pay our bills, or if we experienced a life-changing event like a terrible car accident (and I saw a couple today out on the road), or if we were given the terrible news of an unwanted diagnosis, our whole reality would change instantly. Being aware of that common problem – of the fragility and temporality of life – should bring us together, not divide us.

 

After the 2016 Presidential election, I was disappointed. I was disappointed in the people and in the systems that have made it possible for Donald Trump to be in the highest leadership position in the United States. I was also very disappointed in so many women, predominantly white women, who voted for a man who is unabashedly patriarchal, abusive and sexist. Apparently, Trump’s obscene behaviors did not matter to them. Their votes for him condone his contempt and offensive treatment of women, including many white women. Yet, because of the world in which we live, I can understand why this many white women would vote for a man like Trump. I can understand what it means to participate in one’s own oppression, because I too have done it; many black people have done it. And, these white women are not totally to blame for Donald Trump’s election; we live in a world of systems that teaches peoples to deny and oppress themselves and their truths, rewards them for doing it, and then sits back as if it were innocent when those very people are isolated, hurt or destroyed.

 

I have difficulty imagining Donald Trump as “The President” because of his many hateful behaviors and opinions, which he himself made vocal during the presidential campaign of 2016. President-Elect Trump has judgments for many people, he calls them many derogatory and awful names, and he bases his opinions on inaccurate and incomplete information, especially when it comes to black and brown peoples. He dehumanizes and demonizes brown immigrants, but he does not do the same for white immigrants, which would implicate his many wives and their children. Was Hillary Clinton much better when it came to her behaviors during the campaign? For me, yes she was, because I believe that at the end of the day she is conscientious and that at the least she has the ability to show regret and remorse. I also believe that she is pro-human, which is more than I can say for Donald Trump. I have not understood any U.S. President as perfect or as a redemptive figure, and that includes President Barack Obama, but I do believe that when the lights are off and the cameras have stopped rolling, the person who is President of the United States should not be anti-human. I don’t believe that Donald Trump is good for the country because his behaviors and his opinions demonstrate that he is arrogant, uninformed and so very, very anti-human. And, unfortunately, what this election revealed to many is that there are many Americans who think and act just like him, which is very, very disappointing.

 

On the other hand, I am not discouraged. Yes, it is going to be rough, and yes, many people will suffer under this new administration, but it will not be without a struggle, and it will certainly not be the first time that the American people and immigrants have suffered under a governmental regime that is working against them. With the exception of those who were stolen from Africa and other countries across the Atlantic and put on plantations, and the First Peoples of this land who were forced from their ancestral lands and placed on another form of plantations – called reservations – this country of immigrants has always been at odds with the idea of immigration. And, since the arrival of this country’s first European immigrants at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, many of these immigrants and their descendants have apparently been engaged in a vicious cycle of inclusion and exclusion, competing for social space (as in Ernest Burgess and Robert Park). It’s a damn shame that it is like this, but this is the truth: over time a good majority of the American people have become hateful and resentful of “others” who are not like them.

 

Nevertheless, in the wake of such a disappointing election, we owe it to ourselves and to the people around us, even those in far away countries, to believe in the good and the power of our humanity. History has shown us, time and time again, that we can and we will fight for ourselves, our dignity and for the right to be free. Indeed, that fight and that freedom never comes without a price; it is a price that every freedom fighter has and will reckon with sooner or later. And just like those who went before me and for those whom I have known in my lifetime, I am more than willing to pay the price for freedom because 1) I believe in the goodness of humanity; 2) I believe in the power of the people to resist; and 3) I refuse to become like human beings who have decided that they are better than the rest of us.
© 2016 annalise fonza, Ph.D.