by Pat Holt
Friday, January 26, 2001
AWELE MAKEBA: KEEPING HISTORY HONEST - PART II
Not too many years ago, if you wanted a hit of literary energy but couldn't find a book - say you were with your kids in a park or museum or playground or camp - you might find yourself in a circle of people cheering and recoiling at the stories of Awele Makeba.
This gifted teacher-turned-storyteller would prowl through the crowds telling spooky stories and Ol' Brer Rabbit tales as the audience stared up at her, transfixed.
One minute she would frighten even the most jaded of adults with a surprise visit from the Belly Button Monster. The next she'd have half the audience yelling, "THAT WILL BRING THE FAMILY BAAAAAD LUCK!" and the other half calling out, "YES, MOTHER M'DEAR!" on cue.
Even if you could tear your eyes away from Awele for a second, you didn't dare. She mugged and mimicked and kept her eye on every single person in the audience, so just at the moment you turned to nudge your friend, WHAM! Awele would bring her absolutely horrifying craggy old lady with wild hair and ruby lips shrieking right up to your face and scare you to death until you laughed out loud.
Awele still performs as a storyteller - you can find her billed as "A Teller of All Tales" at http://www.awele.com . If she had done nothing more than resurrect the old stories, her contribution to the world of PRINT literature, oddly enough, would have been profound.
I say print because studies show that if children don't learn how to follow a story early on, they'll have trouble understanding the development of plot and character later, when they begin to read, and never know the power of stories to surprise, sadden and exhilarate.
For a decade or so, Awele traveled all over the world - to the former Soviet Union, France, Australia, Taiwan, not to mention the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and to hundreds of schools and library programs throughout the country - creating a literary structure that set up a hunger for stories her audience could then find, when she wasn't around, only in books.
ON TO THE NEXT LEVEL
Meanwhile, her talent - well, it didn't change, exactly, but I think it began to grow within the art form she was creating. At first this took form in the weaving of personal and contemporary stories with the old tales.
In "Going Down South," for example, which she still performs today, Makeba describes summer road trips as a child traveling with her parents from St. Louis, where she grew up, to her grandparents' home in Mississippi.
Here on a bare stage or asphalt playground or grassy park, she somehow creates a huge magnolia tree "smellin' like perfume" as her grandmother, Big Mama, fans herself on the porch, watching for the car from St. Louis to drive up in a cloud of dust.
"Oooo-whee!" says Big Mama. "Lordy, LOOK who here: It's my great grandbaby girl! You better come on up on this here porch and give me some sugar! UM-hm! I'm gonna squeeze the love right out of you!"
The embrace, the heat, the porch, Grandpa Joe's ice cream maker, the rough wooden table and a big chocolate cake waiting in the kitchen are all constructed for us by Awele's flying hands until we feel we could walk into this house, sit down with the family, drink a cool RC cola and catch up on everybody's doings.
But then mention is made of something awful that happened on the way down - something so tangled and shocking that Big Mama has to sit Awele down for a serious talk.
Makeba's face has the capacity to look 6 years old or 60 within a few seconds, She looks at Big Mama with such foreboding, and Big Mama looks at her with such certainty, that we don't know whether to run away or sit tight.
It turns out that on the drive to Mississippi, Awele and her parents were denied service from - in fact, kicked out of - a gas station on the way that served "Whites Only." As a result, Awele, denied restroom privileges as well, has declared she never wants to "go down South" again.
Now Big Mama in all her wisdom - and Awele the storyteller-turned-performance-artist in hers - realizes that explaining segregation as a fact of life and advising a young person to rise above it is not going to do the trick. Awele is too upset, too deeply humiliated, and why shouldn't she be? The only way out of this problem, she thinks, is to run from it.
So Big Mama, drawing from the same oral tradition that Awele would resurrect many years later, tells a story that's been in the family for generations. It's about a mean old farmer who steals his neighbor's mule and tries to bury the animal alive. This farmer digs a six-foot hole, lures the mule into it, and shovels dirt back in as fast as he can.
"But the mule, you know what he does?" Awele asks, and pretty soon she has us all jumping up and calling out in response. That mule "shakes off the dirt" as it hits him on the back (and here we shake our shoulders vigorously), "stomps it down with his feet" (bam! bam! bam! we stomp) and physically "rises to the next level."
The more the farmer shovels dirt in, the higher the mule rises, until he walks out of the now-filled-up hole and goes home. "He does this because," Awele announces - but now the audience knows enough to jump right in: "HE SHAKES IT OFF, STOMPS IT DOWN, AND RIIIISES TO THE NEXT LEVEL."
We say this, sing this, shout this and act it out enough times until the picture is oh, so clear. Then Big Mama says, "Now baby, people are going to find all kinda things to say you different.
"It might be because of the language you speak, the difference in your hair or the way you think. It could be because you are a little girl or a little boy. It might be the difference in your shape or size or the clothes you wear.
"And to make themselves feel good, they're gonna do things or say things to make you feel bad. That's why we want you to know who you are and where you come from. Because if you know that, no matter what anybody says, or anyone does, you'll be able to . . . (are you ready?) SHAKE IT OFF, STOMP IT DOWN AND RIIIIIISE TO THE NEXT LEVEL."
It shouldn't be surprising that very little kids grasp this metaphor the quickest and remember it the longest, or that near the end of the story, we see ourselves in that peculiar moment of our own history, when somebody made fun of us or was cruel to us because of our difference, whatever it was.
And we remember that if some parental figure had said to just rise above it, we wouldn't have heard the message. But this story-within-a-story not only teaches; it emboldens and uplifts, and most of all, it sticks. The next time some pit seems ready to consume us, we'll be ready.
BACK TO THE SHOES
All this brings us back to the seven pairs of shoes in Awele's newest piece (described in #210), her one-woman play about Claudette Colvin.
This most current step in the evolution of Awele Makeba is the true story of a 15-year-old girl in Montgomery, Alabama, who refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white person in 1955, many months before Rosa Parks did the same thing.
Thanks to Awele's meticulously researched performance, we learn not only about Claudette but about other people who refused to give up their seats on the buses. And we meet JoAnn Robinson, the grass-roots organizer who, following Rosa Parks' arrest, called for the Montgomery Bus Boycott without NAACP permission and suggested that her own young pastor, Martin Luther King, Jr., be asked to lead the fledgling movement.
Readers needn't go back to #210 to appreciate the dramatic imagery of those seven pairs of worn shoes, each neatly placed next to a chair as the play begins. The point is that after Awele shows us how Claudette was carried kicking and screaming off the bus by the police, the hardest part in the play is yet to come: Somehow she must describe the boycott strategy of economic retribution in which the Negroes of Montgomery voluntarily stay off the buses.
The question is, how can a fourth grader, say, understand that walking four or five miles to and from a job could make Negro workers more powerful than if they simply paid their dime and rode to work?
The answer lies in metaphor. Singing a no-nonsense song called "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody turn Me Around," Awele takes that big jar of coins (the bus driver's fare-collection machine) and goes around filling each shoe onstage with pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters. She does this very slowly, very carefully and joyfully, never spilling a coin, always pouring the money into the shoes with a sense of expiation and renewal.
Talking about the boycott, she holds those shoes up and "walks" them with her hands. She clicks them together and shakes them and puts them down, all the while making sure we can hear the coins jingling inside.
You can't hear or see this without appreciating the courage it took for African Americans to stop taking those buses. And yet in her research, Awele has come across schools where students re-enact the boycott, often getting everything wrong - they place Rosa Parks right behind the driver, where she would never sit; they show whites joining with blacks in support of the boycott, when the whole point for everyone to learn and celebrate today is that the Montgomery Bus Boycott was a black initiative in every way.
Some teachers have said that deliberately altering history in this way helps white students bond with black students. The hope is that with such experiences behind them, at lunch and at dances and at track meets, the races won't self-segregate quite so easily - quite so permanently.
Awele's piece is an attempt to portray history accurately, factually. She knows that one of the problems children face today is a systematic manipulation by television and the movie industry to exclude viewers from the power of our true history. As long as viewers sit there passively taking everything in, they cease to think or react critically.
But when an Awele Makeba steps in front of onlookers, long before they ever open a book or ponder the printed word, that magical connection takes place in which the reader's imagination engages with the writer's vision.
You can't help feeling altered in some fundamental way after watching a performance by Awele, and the best part is that now you're hungry for more. Talk about rising to the next level - the Claudette Colvin play is the first in a series of performance pieces that will grow more sophisticated in time and, I bet, have an effect on history as well.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I just had my first bookstore experience ordering a POD title at iUniverse. If writers think this is the wave of the future...they need to think twice. A local author wants me to carry his iUniverse book. I called the company and was on hold for at least 20 minutes. I knew the discount was only 25% (hadn't figured out how I was going to make any money on this title, but I wanted to support the author and thought maybe I might break even).
I asked, Do you accept purchase orders?After hanging up I did some figuring -- if this book were from HarperCollins, I'd make $7.79 a copy, no freight, could do returns if I had to and have a nice 46% margin. This is nuts! I like the author; he's a nice guy; he's not a great author yet, but maybe with some editing, a nice cover and professional marketing -- none of which he's getting from iUniverse -- his book would sell. He's really proud of having gotten "published." Somehow, I've got to break the bad news that I cannot afford to carry his books.
POD may be the answer to some authors' dreams, but as long as bookstores must make money to survive, the future of POD titles in bookstores has to be very much in doubt.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Recently, I called my independent bookstore to request that they order a book for me that had been mentioned in a local newspaper column. Renee couldn't find the book listed in her database and wondered if I had the correct title and author. She said, "I'll call Ray Orrock (the columnist) and ask him." She did, got the info that the book has been out of print for some time, called me back, and offered me the choice of contacting ABE or having the store do it. I elected to do it myself, since I enjoy the process. What service, though! My city government is hoping to lure a chain seller like Barnes & Noble to our town. Well, it'll be bigger and flashier, but I bet they won't give me that kind of personal service.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
That letter from Valerie in #210 [about protesters at the Bush inauguration] was inappropriate, uncalled for, an abuse of Holt Uncensored, and a waste of valuable space.
Most people reading and contributing to this site are doing it for professional reasons or a strong interest in publishing. I don't need this site to become a political forum for every screwball who thinks they have something to say. And we don't need political commentary from people with an axe to grind, from either extreme.
Why don't you screen such useless garbage before sending it along to the rest of us?
Holt responds: Gee, you didn't think people chanting "Hail to the Thief" was funny? I ran the letter because like the writer I hadn't read about protesters in such lively detail - in ANY detail, actually - in the mainstream press. It's not that I agree with her politics necessarily; I thought her observations, if true, were informative and important. Because this is the Internet, it seemed to me that if she IS a "screwball" sending in "garbage," readers out there would write in to set the record straight, as they always do. So far, though, not a peep.
Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.
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