The Phoenix Rising Collective

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ARTIST FEATURE: Owning Who I Am Through The Discomfort – An Interview with Staceyann Chin

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The Phoenix Rising Collective’s Artist Feature, curated by Traci Currie, highlights and focuses on women artists using their talents and creativity to fully express self-love, build self-esteem, and nurture their own authenticity while inspiring others. Creative expressions may range from performing to painting to writing to travel and everything in between. Our goal is to share how these empowered women cultivate agency, healing, and happiness through fulfilling their passion.

This Artist Feature is Staceyann Chin.

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I have learned most recently that some life-changing interviews occur during the silent moments, when no one is speaking. They occur when one person is having internal dialogues with oneself while the other…well, I can’t speak for the other.

I begin this article with the following questions: How do I tell the story of the passing silence between an artist who observes poignantly without hesitation and an artist who discovers an introverted side of herself? Why am I so focused on the airport drive and not the featured artist’s FIRE BALL spoken word performance I witnessed earlier that particular day?

I recall very clearly in fall 2014 when a small group of us talked about bringing Jamaican social activist and performing poet Staceyann Chin to the University of Michigan-Flint. My first thought was “She’s Jamaican. I can finally be in the presence of another fellow Jamaican, although I am not quite that.” But I would claim this name in the same way poet Audre Lorde proudly claims her Caribbean American identity. I have a right, right? My next thought was “Let’s shake things up around the campus and bring Fire and Brim Stone.” After all, Angela Davis had just spoken at the university February 19th. What she shared was in alignment with what I knew about Staceyann Chin, and indeed Chin brought the poetic energy of Davis’ public lecture to the UM-Flint stage.

Let’s backtrack. Through the advice of a mutual friend, I wrote Staceyann an email that she responded to within 24 hours. She agreed to come, and on March 26th she flew into Flint, Michigan in the early afternoon and flew out of Detroit, Michigan that night. Her purpose on paper was to perform on stage for roughly 45 minutes and then have a 15-minute ‘Question-and-Answer’ session. However, given my own spiritual walk and the fact that I believe in starlit cosmos, galaxies-one-grasp-away, flying invisible angels, the blue & red pill, and having in-depth conversations with ancestors using my 6th sense, I believe her purpose in coming to Flint was divine and probably on par with the questions I have been pondering about my life both professionally and personally.

So, if you are wondering if this is about Staceyann Chin, well…I am not sure, but read on.

After the performance I asked her how she thought the event was. She said, “Fine.” But then she turned the question on me and said, “How do you think it went?” Being the stickler I am, who has a tough time seeing anything as perfect if I am the one organizing or performing, I mumbled something that felt inconsequential. Interestingly enough, that moment was quite significant, because I sensed she heard something else in my question. Honestly, when I ask artists their opinion on an event they’ve been apart of, many of them respond with a short declaration and then the conversation is over. However, she asked me what I thought. This example confirms what I learned about her earlier that day – she observes. From the time I picked her up from the airport that afternoon to the moment she exited my vehicle to return to the east coast, her senses were present. For example, when I walked into the airport to meet her (thinking I was early) she had been standing near the exit door. An important note, there were barely any people in the airport. I had walked right by her. However, she seemed to know who I was. She called my name. Mind you, I told her I was short and brown with glasses. But beyond the matching description, there was an assuredness in her voice and in her being. During times I thought she was NOT present (an assumption that came from noticing her on her cell phone often), she was very much so observant. She was cognizant of her surroundings and even my mishap in being confused as to which way to go when leaving the airport, although I have been driving these roads for over a decade. She was alert and mindful, the very thing I attempt to practice in my life. And yes, I was in the moment – moment of confusion; moment of weariness; moment of anxiety and a bit of elation. The next hour, she spent talking with my colleague from Jamaica. I offered a few comments, but I essentially listened to the back-and-forth heated dialogue about raising children and Jamaica’s changing identity.

It was time for her performance, which was at 4pm. I had a tough time navigating her to the theatre because someone cornered her with comments and questions. And in my absentmindedness I abandoned her to talk to a student. I knew I shouldn’t have, but for a moment I lost control of what to do. Oddly, I felt a bit overwhelmed by the people who were clearly there to see Staceyann. How silly of me, right? After all, I wasn’t the one performing – she was! When we entered the theatre, I almost rushed her onto the stage and she said (slightly paraphrased), “Slow down, let’s talk about the order.” I had to take a breath and remember my role. “This is what you do, TC. You organize. Get it together. Focus. Most importantly, take care of your guest.” Heck, for one moment, it felt like she was taking care of me.

The introduction by my colleague was phenomenal. I felt as if it set the stage for everything that occurred – FIRE. Or rather FIYAH! (a little patois for your ears/eyes). It was everything I had hoped, even in my own discomfort. Yes, I am a bold performer, but even I hold back in my own performances. But Staceyann brought FIYAH!

staceyann_chin[self-acceptance]the phoenix rising collective

The event ended and we were on our way to the Detroit airport (1 hour and 15 minutes). During the drive is where I got to know a slightly shy TC who couldn’t come up with much to say because it felt too forced. A matter of fact, I had asked her earlier that day if I could interview her after the performance on the drive to the airport. She said, “Yes.” She pressed the record button while I was driving. A few minutes into the conversation, it just didn’t feel right. The interview felt odd, inauthentic and full of information I had already known. Truth be told, I had reviewed her memoir. I had watched numerous videos and the movie she had featured in. Most of all, I had just seen her perform live. I already had the necessary information for this article, so I thought. I told her to turn the recorder off, and I drove in silence. I was in this weird space. I felt as if I should say something but had nothing in my head besides random thoughts. Then she turned to me and asked me about my life. She wanted to know about me. And it felt odd that she wanted to know about me personally and professionally. I spend my time listening to others – that is my job. My job is to communicate effectively with people across cultures and to listen critically so I can respond to the words not spoken and the body language that seemingly says nothing and everything simultaneously. That’s what I do!

So when she asked me questions I was uncomfortable because it was odd to be the center of attention for a moment. As far as I was concerned, she was supposed to remain the central focus until she left my car (although there really was no focus since I barely spoke). But Staceyann would not allow that to happen. She asked me about my family, my job, my lifestyle, and my travels. Given my disposition and responses, she asked me if I had ever been to therapy. Who wants to admit going to therapy? I know I don’t, at least not to a world that seems to make assumptions about what therapy is and who it is for. But guess what? I did admit it. I admitted quite a few things that led her to say, “Mamacita, you need to break free and address some things.”

My first thought, “I need to break free?!?! You don’t even know me like that!” My second thought, “You’re right. I’m stuck. And I don’t know how to get un-stuck.”

In closing, Staceyann’s interview was about ME. It was about figuring out how to OWN this journey I am on. I learned that there is no finite moment to these life questions. I must take deep breaths; I must use my voice; I must ask the questions I ponder daily; I must break free both privately and then publicly…maybe unapologetically with poetry at the helm.

So, given my words and body language, I suspect Staceyann Chin the storyteller, the poet, the activist, and the observer made me the center of attention for a short moment. And I performed my ‘crossroads’ identity in the car, on the way to the airport. Yes, I am at a crossroads in my life and that’s what this interview revealed. I was reminded to use my tools to break free. Poetry. As my Caribbean American mentor-in-spirit, Audre Lorde says, “Poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.”

Yes, Staceyann Chin is right. I must break free. So today I claim Poetry.

Read Staceyann Chin’s memoir: The Other Side of Paradise.

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About the Contributing Writer:

traci_currie[contributor]the phoenix rising collectiveTraci Currie is a Communication and Visual Arts lecturer at University of Michigan-Flint, as well as a knit-crochet artist, writer, and spoken word performer. She has been a part of the art world for over 15 years as an art gallery board member; spoken word series organizer; performer, nationally and internationally; and published poet. She believes The PRC will help young women reach their highest potential.  “This organization is about empowering women to take ownership of their lives, claim their identities and be the positive change they wish to see in the world they live.” Read her latest posts.

Staceyann Chin @ UM-Flint – A Short Film created and contributed by Shekinah Shazaam


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bell hooks, Growing Pains, and Womanhood: How My Commitment to Feminism Empowered Me to be the Change I Wish to See

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bell hooks.

“SHE is NOT a feminist!” I adamantly expressed to my male mentor/adviser (whom I’ll call “David”) during a heated exchange as a high school senior. He was just as livid and turned up in opposing my viewpoint (with a very condescending smirk on his face) stating, “YES SHE IS!” We were referring to the beloved bell hooks. I was so sure in my conviction that she was not the man hating, ball busting, dyke (please excuse my terminology as this leads up to an excellent point of correction) that I assumed in my very, very, very young and immature mind that ALL feminists were. The little bit that I knew about bell hooks was that her writings heavily criticized the lack of historical literary recognition of black women’s presence within the U.S. women’s liberation and feminist movements. Her writings also sought to empower black women to find our voices and speak our truth in eradicating any and all forms of oppression against us. So, after the debate was over with David, my female mentor/adviser calmly pulled me aside and said very sternly, yet in a loving voice, “Sistah, I admire you for speaking out so passionately about something that appears to be so dear to your heart, BUT bell hooks is a feminist.”

Growing Pains

kaneesha[feminism_March article]I was CRUSHED. CONFUSED. BEWILDERED! I felt so dumb for arguing a point with very little merit or specific facts to support my claims. She, Regina Laurie, my high school mentor/adviser (and now best friend of 15 years) explained to me why bell hooks was a feminist and how my perceptions of feminists were extremely flawed. She also kindly referred me to a bibliography of bell hooks’ writings that provided more insight, as I OBVIOUSLY needed to get my facts straight.

I was still vehemently angry though. I was angry because David knew that I did not know what I was talking about and he continued to argue with me. I was angry because the tone, the words, and the body language (in my opinion) that he used during the dispute further validated my foolish beliefs about how feminists, and in particular, bell hooks preached jargon that was strongly anti-strong black man,  anti-heterosexual relationships, anti-nuclear black family, and any other “anti” that somehow emasculated black men. This is precisely why he was so obstinate in expressing his viewpoint.  I was angry because of my realization that both our assumptions were completely inaccurate, yet he deliberated as if he was speaking THE absolute truth; thus, we both were guilty of the same crime. As my participation in the youth group progressed I recognized that I was the only one between the two of us committed to challenging my erroneous perceptions. David was completely comfortable in his male privilege. Through my awakening I gleaned he was slowly but surely interjecting his views into the fabric of the youth group comprised of precocious high school students trying to “figure it out.” Somehow the youth group committed to organizing the community, undoing racism, empowering and educating youth, and celebrating the arts as a form of social justice, experienced some major internal conflicts leading to tension and the loss of some members. We were, however, able to regain our focus and intention, and also reclaim our mission before the sponsoring organizations were no longer able to support us.

Awakening

This series of events over a period of six to seven months set the stage for me to completely fall in love with bell hooks’ writings. Through her work I was able realize my life’s purpose. These experiences were also the catalyst to transitioning my relationship with Regina from mentor/mentee to best friends, as I legally had become an adult and was entering my freshmen year in college. She continued to informally mentor me, helping to shift my juvenile thought processes and foster an enlightened young woman seeking the answers to some very real questions about life, self-identity, the “isms,” my ancestral history, and essentially what it means to be me. So between the gifts of knowledge, enlightenment, and unconditional love bestowed on me by these two powerful black women, I felt I was ready to take on the WORLD!

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Sisters of the Yam, Ain’t I A Woman, Talking Back, Killing Rage, Salvation, and Communion were on heavy reading rotation during my first couple of years in college. I became heavily immersed in the books, articles, lectures, recordings, interviews and anything I could find written or spoken by bell hooks. She was my introduction to truly re-examining and re-defining the ideas of being a feminist, feminism, sexism, racism, hetero-sexism, homophobia, and classism. She helped me understand the intersections of race, class, and gender, and how these variables impact black women. I gained a sentience of my place in this world as a black woman and what that generally means pertaining to my interactions with everyone else and their perceptions – and possibly preconceived notions – about me. Through this same lens, I was able to critically analyze my relationships with black men ranging from my father to the males I dated. More importantly, bell hooks challenged me to look deeply within my conditioned self and how I had learned to perpetuate the stereotypes popularized within mainstream U.S. culture in what she would call, “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” Ultimately, her extensive work helped liberate my mind and soul and that allowed me to begin accepting all of humanity as a reflection of me. And only through committing to my life’s work based in feminism am I able to BE the change I want to see in the world.

I AM A Feminist

I have since been deeply inspired to define and write my own story through my work with precollege and college students, my close relationships, my home life, as well as social activities about how feminism, womanhood, and motherhood looks in my life. I’m also exceedingly encouraged by women’s stories from around the globe that define, walk in, and own the power of self-defined feminism.

In honor of Women’s History Month; March 2014, I salute the phenomenal, brutally honest, lovingly critical; author, feminist, and social activist, bell hooks.

Thank you immensely for planting seeds of self empowerment and truthful self identity as they continue to blossom, destined for greatness.

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About the Contributing Writer:

Kaneesha_bio_pic[shine]W. KaNeesha Allen is the Motherhood Empowerment contributor for The Phoenix Rising Collective. She is an educator with extensive project management, student support services, and community outreach experience in K-12 and higher education institutions.  She is also the mother of two extremely rambunctious and fun loving boys – Ausar and Mikah. Seeking to master the balance between being a highly engaged mother and taking time to BE with herself in the divine energy of the universe, KaNeesha finds peace, solace, and regeneration through meditation, Vinyasa yoga, and her “Sistah Circle”. She welcomes mothers from everywhere to join her on a journey of self-discovery and evolution towards harnessing, embodying, and emoting the Goddess power within.