I Am an Urban Bush Woman

Mna Pearl (pronounced “Ma”) gave me masks as gifts. She gave me masks made of ebony and others of tin with jewels for eyes. One was wooden. But she would never reveal where they were from; it was my job to do the research, to discover their origins, to make those connections and discoveries for myself. This was the real gift–the gift of teaching, of passing along an obligation to work for the knowledge that would mean so much more as a result, the gift of no easy hand-outs, no false praise, no short-cuts. The gift of being held to my own potential.

I shared this story yesterday at the 92nd Street Y during the question and answer period of my parents’ book launch. Every copy they brought of The Dance Claimed Me: A Biography of Pearl Primus sold out. Dancers from UMass performed from some of Pearl’s solo pieces– Negro Speaks of Rivers, Strange Fruit, Hard Time Blues, and the group work, Bushasche. In the audience were people from Pearl’s many, many circles. Her spirit filled the space. My mother shared, during her words of welcome, that it was also her mother’s birthday–what would have been her 100th in fact. It was truly a celebration of an incredible life and legacy–Pearl’s–and an amazing accomplishment that was many years in the making–my parents’.

As the lights went down and then rose on the first dancer, dressed in bright green and yellow cloth, as a man stood and began reading from a Langston Hughes poem in a deep, slow voice, I closed my eyes and remembered: this was my childhood. This was and is still my life–poetry, dance, expression, the search for roots and origins, the dancing out, or in my case, writing out, the rage and the tears and the joy and the pain and the leaping shouting bursting of being alive. It is not just inward-looking but very much in relation to the world, to power, oppression, injustice, and the fierce refusal to look down at the ground instead of gazing directly into the eyes of those who would hold us down, black, white, gay, straight, man, woman, and all of the gorgeous variations that blast open every one of those binary, simplistic definitions of self. We are all part of something so much greater, a movement, a call, an obligation. This is the gift Pearl gave me as a child. Masks with mysterious origins meant for me to discover.

Riding the train back downtown last night from the Harlem Stage, where the Urban Bush Women celebrated their 25th anniversary with Resistance and Power, dances I cannot describe in words, dancers whose bodies and spirits are so strong and fierce and fearless and gorgeous that all I could do was take it in, feel my own gorgeousness and ferocity, my own connection to that tradition of “shouting” that began with slaves who were not allowed to dance but knew to let out whatever they had inside, evoking ancestors from Frederick Douglass to Audre Lorde to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, to all the nameless ones who lost everything yet still leapt and sang and wept and survived, knowing that stance and gaze–literally how we hold our bodies, how we look directly at our oppressors, be they real or symbolic, is power. Is resistance. Is beauty. Is freedom.

On the train, I said something to my mom about how deeply I identify with all of this. “Live it!” she said. Live it!

This morning, walking alone down Broadway, soaking up the City I love and hunger for, I felt inspired, reconnecting to my city girl, my walking, standing, gazing, writing, fighting, loving, giving being. I want to write, yes, and to teach and read and connect. The magnolias are in full bloom on the Barnard Campus. I sat there Thursday night on a bench, feeling such tenderness for my twenty-year-old self on her way to becoming me.

Mazel tov, Mom and Dad. Thank you, Pearl, for the masks.

Thank you, New York City, for energizing and inspiring me and welcoming me back.

Thank you, Greg, for the delicious Indian dinner, for your witness and light touch and animalistic commitment to living large.

Thank you, Ashley, for your direct gaze.

Thank you, dancers who know that the dance comes from deep within and transforms the world.

Thank you, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, for your vision.

Thank you, teachers, who give their hearts and souls to the children who were once us and the ones we’re now raising.

Thank you, God, for helping me untangle the knots in my heart I thought would never begin to loosen.

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