Mel Reeves. Fighting the Power.

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I was adopted informally when I was one years old. I don’t know the whole story about my birth mother and I don’t want to speculate. I know she had 13 children.  I was the 13th. Something happened to her after the 8th kid. She could no longer handle all those children.

One day when my older sisters were supposed to take care of me, an older woman noticed the infant sitting in the dirt by himself in our Miami yard.  She  fussed about how no one was taking care of the baby, took me to her house where she lived with her daughter and called my birth mother to come pick me up.

My birth mother never came. Those women became my mother and grandmother. Eventually they adopted one of my sisters daughters as well. They would always harp on us about how good we had it. It made sense to them, considering the deprived situation they came from. From my adoptive mother’s  perspective we had a roof over our heads and we never missed meals, how could we complain?

But from the perspective of us kids it was hell, inside and outside the house. They meant well, but they were overly strict, border-line abusive. They didn’t have any kid skills. We had so many chores, it was almost like my mother and grandmother were projecting something from slavery days. They were hardcore — old school. “Children seen not heard,”  though my grandmother had a soft interior.

I was physically small when I was a kid. And poor. I never had clothes that fit.  I wore a lot of high-water pants. Small, poorly dressed and low income. It made me the victim of bullies.  It was tough on my psyche. In junior high I got jobs and had my own money to buy clothes. I bought flashy stuff and then didn’t have enough for essentials. It wasn’t until high school that I figured out how to buy the clothes I needed.

Once when my mother and I went to a PTA meeting, some kid hit me in the back. I didn’t retaliate. I remember my mother being really upset I didn’t I defend myself. I didn’t feel like anyone had my back, including her, so how could I defend myself? My ego was as low as a kid’s ego could be.  That changed when I did start to defend myself in junior high school. Kids knew if they put their hands on me they were going to pay a price.

I think I learned to read before school because I was terrified not to learn. Once my mother put some of my stuff in a sheet, wrapped it on to a pole, and told me to leave, because I did not learn. But, my biggest beef with my mother was giving teachers free reign to corporally punish me. One time my fifth grade teacher called my house and said I threatened her.   That was a lie. My mom woke me up and I got a whupping.

I was the original book worm. I hid myself in books — read everything. One of my favorite series in third grade was the Boxcar Children. I also enjoyed a U.S. history series, full of stories about the West and the Civil War. They were propaganda of course, but they could not have been too bad, because I grew up with a positive view of Native American folks.  In Jr. High I became a WWII buff. I had all the dates and times down.

I used to go over to the neighbors and use their encyclopedias.  Eugene and Else Justice.  They lived across the street and had a bunch of kids — six girls and a boy. They were all older than me. I looked up to the boy. He was a deacon in church. I liked him. He liked me too. He was a father figure to me. He had his own construction company. I looked forward to his visits. He had a big old smile. He was no nonsense. A man’s man. He sensed that I was a lonely kid and he spent  time with me.

Then there were the Fennels. Their older son, Dwight J. Fennell, got a Ph.D. and eventually became a president of Texas College,  an HBCU.  I remember when he came back from college I thought, “That college thing is the way to go. He was a cool cat — a cool guy.

Anything that happened on the block I looked forward to.  We had a neighbor who had an uncle. We all called him “Uncle Van.” He lived in Chicago and Tennessee. All the kids liked him. He was gregarious — the life of the party. He would bring gifts for the kids. We all looked forward to him coming.

We knew all the neighbors for two blocks around. You could borrow a cup of sugar – an egg, whatever. That did happen. My mom had too much pride to sign up for welfare. She was a presser in a factory.  The work was seasonal.  A  neighbor who was getting welfare, would get commodities and share them. I like the canned meat. It would come in big role. I hated the instant potatoes though.

My mother would always act like we were better off. She was good at painting alternate realities and getting you to live in it.

Miami, Florida in the 1960s and 70s.

When I was little, Miami beaches were segregated. The public beach that was available to us was Virginia Key Beach. I remember seeing miles and miles of Black people. I experienced white people in stores. I didn’t think much of them one way or another. My classmates were justifiably wary of white people.  Their parents had experienced racism.

At ten I read Tear Down the Walls: A History of the American Civil Rights Movement. It told about racism in the South, informing me about a movement going on around me that I didn’t know about other wise. I filed it away. Civil Rights activists in Miami were wedded to the “big man” style of organizing. They got things done, but they didn’t build a movement.

My mother had a little degree of self-hate. She compared Black people negatively to White people.  After Martin Luther King was killed, I heard her yell out to neighbors— “They killed y’alls leader.” I held that against her for a long time.

There was class division in our community. Some of the teachers resented me because I was poor but smart like the middle class kids. They would bend over backwards to be unfair.  Once I got into a fight after school. My classmate who didn’t like me told on me and I got paddle boarded. Another time, my friend drew a rabbit. I laughed at the drawing. I got the paddle. Those memories sting.

My elementary school was segregated. We had hand-me down books. There was one teacher who was my saving grace. Ms Miller. Fourth grade. She took a real interest in me. She liked me and I liked her. It was the only time I made A’s in elementary school.

In junior high they bussed in some White folks. There weren’t enough White kids for the experiment to work. We didn’t mix with them. It didn’t work out well.

We had one White teacher in Junior High. Miss Morin. A flower child — fresh out of college.   She came to school dressed in mini skirts. We were 13-14. We thought we were going to take advantage of her. But she was tough, and a really good teacher — stern about us learning. I think she helped me start writing. She worked really hard with people on their reading skills. She stood out as a great teacher.

For high school I got bussed. Our neighborhoods was split four ways. I got to leave behind some kids I needed to get away from. The school I went to was 70% Jewish, 20% Black. There were 3,500 kids in that high school. It was a new building, air conditioned, with technology, a TV production studio, radio station, and a nice theater and gym. I became manager of the basketball team. I joined the theater club. The environment helped me. I blossomed, made straight As in 10th and 11th grade. There were some good teachers. One taught us Black history and culture. She was serious about us.

My favorite high school teacher was Mr. Hart. He taught African American history. He turned out to be a conservative, voted for Nixon. — He said “Nixon knows the Black middle class wants a piece of the pie and he’s cutting us in.”

I hit a bump in 12th grade. School bored me. I couldn’t concentrate. I still had a thirst for knowledge so I went to the library instead of school. We had no attendance requirements. I was smart enough that I could just come in and take the test and pass the class.

One of my buddies started to smoke weed. I did too. Smoking, drinking. It eventually caught up with me. I lost the basketball manager position. The administration still liked me so they let me slide.

On day I was confronted by  the assistant principal. He said “The teachers are letting you get away with murder. You have outsmarted them. You gotta go to class though, or they will figure out a way to outsmart you.”

Sure enough, come graduation time, I hadn’t finished the PE credit, and, though they let me walk, they would not give me my diploma. They wanted me to come back in the fall and finish well.

I gave high school the finger. I didn’t go back. I didn’t go to senior prom either because I didn’t have a girl. I was a nerd. I had just started to date.

I floundered for another year. Stayed with my mom, and worked just enough to put money in my pocket for weed. It was 1975. Affirmative Action time. At the end of my junior year I had eight college scholarship offers. I could have had my pick of colleges. I blew them all. After all I had been thought I just want motivated.

Church 

My saving grace was starting to do a few odd jobs at the Baptist Church. I wound up joining the church. Pretty soon I was taking Christianity seriously. Before long I felt called to the ministry. The minister said “OK. We are going to give you an opportunity to prove your skills.”

I borrowed something from the Declaration of Independence. The point was that Jesus can set you free. They liked it. They licensed me to preach. The preachers son got his license at the same time and we had a ball hanging out together.

Middle class Black churches required ministers to get a Divinity degree. So, I signed up for Bible College — Miami Christian College. I got good at basketball and made the college team. I had a really good English composition teacher who helped me with  writing.

While the teachers were good, some of the white students were ignorant. A few were even surprised that Blacks were Christians! Some were absolute racists.  It shocked the hell out of me. I thought that Christians would put that racism thing down.  It was bad enough, that I decided to leave.

I went to Miami Dade Community College. That was great! I got interested in theater. The students were mostly women, so I had a ball. They were from all over Miami. Salt of the earth people. I had a great sociology professor. We had to write a paper on the death penalty. At that time I had a conservative Bible view of the death penalty. An eye for an eye.  He took my paper and said:

“You can’t be Black and be for the death penalty! I am not going to give you a grade. Read this book: The Poor get Prison and the Rich Get Off and rewrite your paper.” I read the book. It changed my perspective.

At the Community College I got a part in a play by Ed Bullins, called A Son, Come Home. My theater teacher told me I was an actor so I started to apply to four-year Christian colleges that had theater programs. Northwestern College accepted me, so off I went, on a greyhound, to Orange City, Iowa.

College in Iowa

Talk about culture shock. I got off the bus next to a corn field. I was like — where am I? All this green and corn. It was beautiful. I took to it right away. In Miami we grew fruits in the back yard. I loved the green.

There were not many black folks at Northwestern, but those of us who were there bonded. One of my classmates conspired to make me the leader of the makeshift Black Student Union. They said “this guy can lead.” I was a pretty good hell raiser. We dealt with the same old crap. Questions like “How did you get here.”  I got pretty good at debating with those racists. I was the first student to speak during chapel service.I had started running cross country at Northwestern.

I realize just now, that the theater professor who pushed my application, was probably thinking he was bringing in a Black man who could sing and dance. I could not sing or dance. I ended up doing theater tech. The tech instructor was a goofy guy, but he was serious about us.  I’m grateful for that experience. Learning to make a theater set gives you the confidence you can to do anything.

Minneapolis in the 1980s. 

In the summer of 1980 I followed a classmate from the Twin Cities suburbs, to Minneapolis to work with a summer youth program.   I liked South Minneapolis.  The church I was working for was gracious enough to pay my tuition at Bethel Seminary.

Their youth program was pretty good — but my heart was not into Bethel’s Eurocentric schooling. I’m still trying to figure out how you can be conservative and Christian.  To me its an oxymoron.

I did make friends at Bethel with one of the best people I’ve ever met. She was from DePere, Wisconsin. She would drive me to school.  We’d go running together. She made being in that school easier, but…. I couldn’t stay.

It was a turning point for my activism. I joined Clergy and Laity Concerned and became their racial justice coordinator. We worked on jobs, housing, supported MN Students Against Apartheid. That is when I met Janice Payne Dorliae. She was a former Panther — a real revolutionary. I also befriended Chris Nisan who was a long time activist.  Janice would question us. She would tell us what to do. She would have us read and study. She would tell me about her past. She would engage us in political discussions, assign us books and ask  what we thought. I’m trying to do that now with younger folks. Study groups. I got that from Janice.

On the first day of the year, 1987, Janice died tragically. Her death was a huge blow for me.

Fighting  local brushfires of injustice. 

In 1989 there was the Embassy Suites case.  Cris Nisan did fabulous work on that case. It was so egregious. Black college students had rented a room. Someone called the police complaining about noise. The police came, with guns drawn and beat up some of the students. Chris convinced them to hold a press conference. He had the presence of mind to move quickly. The cops wound up not being charged.

I started writing for the Spokesmen Recorder. I was editor of and on during the 1990s. Cris Nisan and I started playing the role of social justice firemen. People would call about whatever was going on and we’d show up. We would go into the schools with parents. We even took on landlords. People knew who we were. We would show up and threaten to raise hell, get people to do the right thing. We would go to people’s jobs and support them as they raised hell with their employers. We were a little crazy, a little wild. We wouldn’t take crap from anybody.

When we worked for Northwest Airlines  we let the union  know they weren’t representing all their people. Some of those union folks hated my guts, others loved me to death. The old hard core guys loved me, those who had been with the union for decades, back when people were militant in their advocacy of labor.

I went to see what the housing court was like.  There was this woman with a baby, 19 years old who was being evicted in the middle of winter.  I  threatened to write a story.  They let her stay in her apartment.

Another case I remember well. It was in the paper. This lady was driving and had a diabetic stroke. She couldn’t talk, like people who have seizures. It made her drive erratically. She pulled over and the police drove up and began screaming at her, but she couldn’t hear, couldn’t talk. The cops dragged her through the front window, wrecking her back. The doctors she saw at HCMC doctors punked out and wouldn’t give her documentation. She went to Fairview for a second opinion. They came to the conclusion that she had had a diabetic episode. She won a suit. A lot of money. Moved to Dallas.

Long after, she came to visit me. She looked really good — I almost didn’t recognize her. She wanted to give me a part of her settlement. I told her “I can’t take your money — that’s  not what I did it for”. She said “What if I gave you just something.” She couldn’t believe I wouldn’t take her money. She took me out to lunch. She was able to retire, get out of here and buy a house.

We helped a lot of people who I don’t remember. At my 60th birthday party a man offered to pick up some more beer. I handed him some cash, but he refused it saying, “I know you don’t remember, but you did me a solid a long time ago.  Your money is no good to me. I’ll get the beer.”

The murder of Tycel Nelson by police on December 1st, 1990, in North Minneapolis was a pivotal moment. I’ll never forget the organizing around that.
The LA times reported that “racial calm in Minneapolis could be shattered by shooting.” There was a meeting at the Urban League. The city was afraid of the  community response and tried to get more conservative folks to get out in front of it. They were trying to keep a lid on things instead of trying to get justice for Tycel’s family.  We did some good organizing around that.

A few years later the cop who killed Tycel, Dan May, was given an award. Salt in the wound.

A lot of these cops who kill people go about their lives like they didn’t do anything wrong. I’ve never understood that. They swallow the hype that they are the arm of the state.

Look, I won’t argue with a criminal with a gun. There was a guy in Miami who used to stick people up. You just gave him your money. He had the gun. It’s the same with cops.  You don’t have rights when the police pull you over. You want to survive the encounter. They have the gun. You know the cops recruit psychopaths. They recruit racists.

 Miami, 2002-09

I went back to Miami in 2002, because my mom had cancer. I had been offered a  job with the Miami Times,  an African American Weekly.  That didn’t work out.

I got on the Miami Dade County NAACP board, and helped them take on labor complaints. It was worthwhile work.  I was able to work in coalition with the ACLU on police accountability issues.   We forced them to create a civilian review board. The ACLU was doing good work around the Patriot Act then.  I wish they would get more visible with Take a Knee today.

Struggling with the rest of the NAACP board, I got in touch with the middle class bias in Black leadership in Miami that oppressed me as a kid. I was investigating a case where a  security guard jumped  kids at Miami’s Edison High. I had met the kids who were in the school yard and interviewed them. They told the same story, over and over. The cops maced the kids. Adults were being dishonest. The media chose to believe the cops.

When I reported what happened to the NAACP board, most members chose to believe the media reports.  One of the members who disrespected me was a middle class woman who had been my teacher, who had made my life miserable as a kid. Now here she was calling me a lier! It pissed me off something severe. I said “Shame on all of you.”  I haven’t talked to them since.

I also took up the issue of Black Beach Week. Every Memorial Day since the 1990s  Black young people have been coming down to South Beach for a weekend of partying. People from as far north as New York, Virginia, come to it.  It draws tens of thousand of young people. The police arrest hundreds of kids every year and they rough some of them up.  (The event made news when someone got killed a couple years ago.)

As a board member of the NAACP, I and member of the ACLU sat down with the mayor, police reps and city officials and said, “You know these kids are coming. Treat them fairly.” We had some success. The number of petty arrests that were just racism, went down.  Those kids weren’t any worse then any other kids coming down to party in South Florida. But the city of Miami Beach didn’t want them.

I didn’t get a lot of traction with the Middle Class Blacks in the church and NAACP.  They had a conservative attitude: “If they misbehave …”.  But we were able to get the Police Chief, Mayor’s Office and Visitor’s Bureau to take some action. They were worried about their reputation.

When it comes to fighting racism in the education system, conservative Black folks often say “it’s the parents.” One incident in Miami illustrated to  me the fallacy of that thinking.  There was this failing school in a Black, working class part of  Brownsville, a  suburb of Miami. A new principal came and was doing a great job. He greeted every kid, got parents involved. The PTA was moving forward.  Soon as they began to succeed they replaced the principal. For me it was an aha moment. They don’t really want the parents involved!

I helped the parents organize, but they just refused to bring the principal back.  They even demoted him. They wanted to teach them a lesson.  A very important lesson.

I did some good work organizing the  Miami anti-war coalition to oppose the war in Iraq.  It was a good coalition — multi generational and multicultural. We did some education around the war and produced a really good pamphlet.

In 2006-7 I started doing some writing for Black Agenda Report and continued to do so when I moved back to the Twin Cities in 2009.

While I was in Miami we had Hurricane Rita. People don’t remember, because it after that came Katrina, but Rita was very destructive in South Florida. A lot of lot of blue tarps in Miami them. The roof came off our house.  I lost all my  papers.

Organizing in Minneapolis 2009-Present. 

Back in Minneapolis I worked on Natalie Johnson Lee’s City Council campaign.  It was during that campaign that her opponent Don Samuels said they should “Burn North High down.” She lost.

After that I thought I was going to do more with church.  I went to a religious retreat center for six months. That was invigorating.  I came back and got involved in fighting police brutality and the 1% instead.

The Occupy Movement was a good push back against the bailout of wall street. It   popularized the fact that we live in a class society. Occupy Homes in Minneapolis was powerful because we were literally saving people’s home.  We went into neighborhoods and helped a particular person who was losing their home. People supported their neighbors  We had barbecues in people’s back yards. We  took on the banks — especially TCF; went to shareholders meetings. The organizing was instructional. It showed how us this is how you organize — go door to door and talk to people.

The campaign to save North High school was also instructive. We engaged the  activist alumni, and just stayed with it, forcing the school board’s hand. We had a meeting at Zion Baptist church– 150 folks.  We created the blueprints for a  community school. They implemented it a little bit — we got the green house and the radio station, kept the classrooms small, but we didn’t quite get the “community school” we envisioned. Still, we won because we got them to keep the school open .

I helped organize the Twin Cities Coalition for Justice for Jamar after he was killed by Minneapolis police. We organized a broad community meeting.  After the 4th Precinct Occupation was shut down, we were able to keep the struggle going.

King Demitrius Pendeleton and I helped organize a protest/vigil  after Justine Damand was killed by Minneapolis police. We’ve been saying for a long time, it’s not just Black folks…

After borrowing Marcus Harcus’s idea, I worked with some folks to start Malcom X commemorations in Minneapolis in 2014, the 50th anniversary of his death.  I would like to do it on grander scale some day. It is in line with my politics  to understand who he was.  Before he died he had become a real revolutionary. Internationalist, anti-capitalist, the guy who wouldn’t vote Democrat or Republican…

Reconciling and Revolutionary thoughts at 60. 

People refuse to do the the research on the cops.They have an ugly history starting with the slave patrols. They have been killing Black people since slavery. Thousands of people. But not just Black people. Cops dropped bombs on workers fighting for a few more nickels or the right to organize in the Colorado mines at the beginning of the last century. The cops have continually intervened on behalf of bosses and against workers.

I have never understood people, who call themselves human beings, who have the audacity to malign someone while they are bleeding. That is one of the meanest things you can do.

There is a section of the working class that will always ally with the cops, but there are others in the political middle— you gotta win them over — No one has ever made a revolution by themselves. Just you and a handful of folks — won’t do it. You have to win people over to your side.

Protesting is not enough.  If people don’t have any politics, they end up with Democratic party politics — a dead end.

You have to model what you want to see. I try to be open. I have a lot of ideas.

How do I do this work? I live a simplified lifestyle. I keep my expenses low.  When I was organizing  around the murder of Terrence Franklin by MPD,  a guy gave me a ride home. It was like he was looking under my skirt, so to speak — seeing the way I lived. He said “You don’t have a car?!  You share a place ?!

I don’t have savings. Only enough for my kids to bury me.

I peruse the ministry on and off. I started this work because of my understanding of the Bible. The call to do justice. Every time I go back I say, “I can’t do this.” In my reading of the Bible. I see a strain of love and justice running through it. There is craziness in that book as well, but I found in the prophets, a call to do justice and the idea that it’s a sin to create an unequal society.  There are rules about interest and redistribution when things get out of balance. Those are  socialist ideas.

I have always been sensitive to the underdog. Rather then wanting to leave the hood,  I wanted to go back to it. I know from when I was a kid, what it’s like to be friendless. It’s very personal. I feel peoples’ pain. Police violence stuff is especially painful. When the state kills its own….

What I’ve been doing lately is writing, working on my website: Fight the Power Journal.  I’m also trying to build a local movement around Take a Knee.

Next event is November 19 at the U.S. Bank Stadium. With any luck, we will build a movement.

 

Minneapolis Project. 

Louis Alemayehu: The Making of A Multicultural Spiritual Elder.

 

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 If I had to label myself I’d say I’m a spiritual anarchist.

My mother was raised Catholic, my father, southern Black Baptist. Their families both moved  into a Jewish orthodox neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago called Englewood  in the late 1920s –my mother from Marquette, Michigan in the Upper Peninsula and my father from Marianna, Arkansas.  As adults they helped found an African American congregation of the Missouri synod Lutheran Church.  

The Lutheran Pastor, Moses S. Dickinson, was an early mentor for me. During my lifetime I have been mentored  by African American and Native American  spiritual leaders as well as a feminist Christian ethicist.  

I had an understanding early that if you looked deeply at all the religions paying attention to those threads that connect them  — all those variations of the golden rule — you will find truth.

Ancestors 

I came from people who embraced strains of Christianity and their African-ness, expressing these values in the way they cared about everyone’s children, the way different church denominations celebrated together, the way people shared resources.  They survived through the Great Depression by sharing, not hoarding.

My father’s family  were farmers, housekeepers and preachers.  My Aunt Julia  told me stories about my paternal grandparents, that they were angry people, filled with rage at the conditions they endured.  By the time I met them they were gentle elders.

People on my father’s side told me family stories because they sensed I needed them and wanted them. But I didn’t learn about my mother’s family  until about ten years ago,  Her ancestors left Kentucky on the Underground Railroad in the early 19th century. When I heard that, a light went on in my head, like, that’s why I’m wired the way I am!

They helped found a Black Canadian community called Dawn ,  in the 1830s (now called Dresden).  The leader of Dawn was Josiah Henson, who wrote an autobiography that was material for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Toms Cabin.

My maternal grandmother started an arts and women’s social leadership organization, Little Women.  She was a precinct captain and a FDR New Deal Democrat who helped people apply for and get resources from the government.  She was light-skinned, and when not with her children, people thought she was white, but she had a strong sense of racial pride.  She wasn’t programmed with a colorist view or talented 10th classism.  She had no desire to approximate White ways.  She passed down to me an aversion to Black middle class assimilation.  The only reason to disappear into that world would be to bring back information for the community.

My maternal grandfather, born in Ottawa, Canada, told us that our ancestors were also Native American.  As a unionized Railroad worker he passed through Minnesota. Sometimes they did union votes in the Twin Cities. Other ancestors lived here in early 20th century.  Some went all the way to the west coast.  They intermarried with all kinds of people.

Childhood on the south side of Chicago. 

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Their families moved to Chicago at the very beginning of the depression – 1926-27.  My parents met in Chicago and became best friends in 3rd grade.  After they married in 1941, they moved to a strong African American community on 92nd St —  the far south side of Chicago. That is where I was born, December, 1945.

South Chicago had a strong southern atmosphere in those days.  Our Black Lutheran  Minister Dickinson came from out of Alabama.  My first accent was southern. He used African American spirituals outside of the Lutheran hymnal: Let Us Break Bread Together and Were You There..

I had a tendency to wander, so the whole neighborhood had to watch out for me. My mother called me her Wandering Jew.  Once she tried to put a leash on me. My Dad said no to that.  We lived close to urban fields.  Watching spiders spinning webs in high grass, following the movements of birds and insects; I would be totally transfixed.  I think that is why my current practice of meditation feels so natural.  I’d get so caught up in the sound and sights of the natural world. There was no boundary between me and it. That is when I first learned to hear voices.

The Illinois Central railroad ran right beyond the house.  On the other side was a forest and a pond.  I was told never to go there.  My mother created a petition demanding a fence between us and the railroad tracks.  She was my first model of activism.

At three, my grand-uncle predicted I’d be a preacher or a doctor.  I believed him until I understood what they were, and began deliberately moving away from both occupations, but I ended up running back into them both.  The ceremonies of Dakota spiritual elder Amos Owen were key to stepping into my role as a spiritual elder committed to healing and community building.

Concordia College in Moorhead Minnesota

Pastor Dickinson thought I’d be a minister.  By that time I had developed a disdain for Chicago’s Democratic machine politics.  I understood how unfair and manipulative the system was — hand picking gatekeepers.  That Chicago experience still informs my political lens.

I wanted to get away from Chicago, but Moorhead was still a rude culture shock. The challenge of being in an environment like that began this whole process of figuring out who I was culturally, spiritually.

It was 1964.  Freedom Summer.  I felt guilty about remaining up north while my peers in the south were deeply engaged in the movement.  But being far north didn’t isolate me.  The civil rights, anti-war and women’s movements all eventually came up to Concordia.

I had a mentor at Concordia named Eleanor Haney.  She was born in Delaware, got her doctorate in NYC, studying under Reinhold Niebuhr.  This small white woman with a southern accent and a concern about social issues picked up and reflected back at me things the elders in Chicago had taught me.  She really mentored me.  She saw things in me that I’m just now understanding.   She initiated social dynamics into this conservative Lutheran campus.

I worked with her and other students on a Spiritual Life Lecture Series . We brought some incredible people on campus. Bernice Reagon, one of the freedom singers, came for a whole week. I was her campus guide. She was a couple years older that me, born in Georgia, singing our traditional songs to inspire people to pull up the courage to do what they feared doing on threat of death. Elly Haney was into the Southern Christian Leadership Conference SCLC . Bernice was with Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee SNCC. At one point she opened up her purse and showed me her gun. She said “If anybody come up in my place I’ve got something for them.”

Elly Haney and I started an exchange program with Virginia Union U — a predominantly African American college in Richmond.  I spent time there and met student activists.  Those students started coming up to Concordia.  There was a small influx of African American students, enrolling at Concordia.  Together with our counterparts at Moorhead State and North Dakota State, we formed a Black Student Union.

The Moorhead State students brought in Odetta.  Think about that — I met Odetta in Northern Minnesota!  From her, I found out how she and Bernice Reagon had crossed paths in Georgia.

We brought up Andy Young and Vincent Harding.  Harding wrote most of King’s speech at Riverside Church against the Vietnam War.  He was my first draft counselor.  He told me why I should resist as an African American Man.

Daniel Berrigan had to get special permission to travel.  He was my second draft counselor.  With his help I applied for CO status.  I had one draft board hearing in Fargo. Pastor Dickenson came all the way from Chicago to testify on my behalf. They said they believed my claim but were denying it based upon the timing of my application — so close to being called up.  As it turned out I got a medical deferment.  The atmosphere I was dealing with was so stressful I developed ulcers.

Am I a pacifist?

In the 60s and 70s there were wars of liberation in Africa and Latin America.  I think there were some successes — the Cuban Revolution — the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.  It seems to me that revolution is actually spiritual.  It involves a dramatic change in consciousness, rooted in something I call indigenous wisdom, which my mentors in the Dakota and Ojibwa nations taught me.  I think about what Audre Lorde said: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”  When you think about revolution, those who benefit are usually the arms makers who will sell arms to both sides.

 

Connecting the dots with Indigenous Dakota and Ojibwe People  

You know those connect-the-dot pictures?  I loved them as a child.  I am still trying to connect the dots.  I know we are all connected.  If  you ignore the interconnection of all life,  you set the stage for catastrophe.  

At Concordia, I was adopted by the family of one of my classmates from Detroit Lakes.  I spent a lot of time there.  White Earth was very close to Detroit Lakes. The mother in that family came from a Dakota family that left Fort Totten reservation during the Great Depression.  She was told growing up not to tell people she was Dakota. But once they brought me into their family she finally told her children. That mother and I had an intuitive connection.  It was really clear when we were thinking about each other.  We would call each other.  She was a mother to me. That kind of unconditional love.

I landed in Minneapolis the same year that AIM began, down the street here on Franklin Ave.  Those leaders inspired me and became teachers and allies.  I remember when they occupied Alcatraz.  It made me sit right up.  I could feel it in my spine — like “Yeah!”  In those years I  would take Northwest Airlines to Chicago to visit and inevitably — “randomly”– I would get pulled over going through security.  One time I found myself standing in line next to Vernon Bellecourt who also “just happened to be” getting searched.

In 1980 I worked with a national organization called the Youth Project.  We were supposed to find cutting edge organizing in urban and rural America.  The staff was a real mix of folks.  The organization was based in Washington DC with money coming from larger foundations who didn’t have the capacity to reach communities like us younger people could.  I was in the midwest office staffed by Jon Pratt — now the director of the MN Council Non Profits.  Jon and I visited projects around the region.  I covered the eastern section and he covered the Western section of the midwest.  I believe I was the first to secure outside funding for Winona La Duke’s  White Earth Land Recovery Project, through the Youth Project.   I began to meet others from White Earth, and from all over the region. I made the connections between their communities and their projects.

That is something I have been doing since childhood — seeing how things were connected. It is part of my make-up. My mother told me that one day, at the age of 9 or 10, I announced to her that everything was related to everything else.

Minneapolis and Mexico in the 1970s. 

When I started at Concordia they had put me in bone-head English.  After two months they moved me into a regular English class.  I began to write poetry and was published in the campus journal Afterthought.  I was in school an extra year because of the ulcers.  It took me a while to adjust to academic life, but I left after five years with a degree in Education and English Literature, and moved to Minneapolis.

I got a teaching job in Burnsville — a stressful place to be.  I hated it.  Eventually I moved into the city and got a teaching position at Ramsey Jr High school (now Justice Page School).  A Filipino woman teaching there had to return home to get her documents in order.  I took her position for a semester.  Some of the staff were resentful of me taking her position.  When she got back I moved to Jefferson high school on 26th and Hennepin.

On the West Bank, 7th and Cedar, I shared an apartment with Tom Gjelten — now a reporter for NPR.  Then he was a writer with the MN Daily.  His girl friend— Mary Jo Thompson — an Arts Educator — lived with us sometimes. Through Tom, I met students at the U.  That was a period of robust student activism.  There was a big demo in 1972 after Nixon lied about Cambodia, and the Morrill Hall Occupation to demand Black Studies.

Tom and Mary Jo had been to this school in Cuernavaca, Mexico and they convinced me to go. Centro Intercultural de Documentación (CIDOC) started by Ivan Illich.  Now its a language school.  I studied Spanish there in a small cohort with Catholic priests.  Illich talked about the connection between energy, cities and the impact of fossil fuels on the poorest people who live where those resources are mined.  His most popular book was Deschooling Society.  He viewed education as indoctrination, arguing that schools should be helping young people flower.  He said education should be teaching students how to problem-solve and help their  communities be healthy.  Today that is much of what my work is, both here and in West Africa.

In Mexico I had the chance to step out of the U.S. People weren’t sure who I was.  It was up to me to say who I was.  I said “I’m Black.  I’m African American.  I did not want deference because of my light skin.

It was insightful to be outside of U.S., unburdened from white supremacy.  But I also realized how deeply connected I was to people in the U.S. — that I missed them.

Minneapolis Ethiopian Connection 

Minneapolis in the 1970s was as white as Moorhead, but I showed up in time to see the influx of people from Africa, Asia and Latin America.  My first wife, Aster,  was an immigrant from Ethiopia.  One of her sisters had married an American and moved to Minneapolis.

My Ethiopian friend Elsa – who was my age– introduced my to Aster.  We were like brother and sister.  Her husband was Jamaican and the two of them were my teachers on African history and culture, introducing me to Pan-Africanism. They considered me part of the family.  Aster’s family consider me family too.  There is this Africana thing about extending family.  (Other Africans that immigrated here since have begun to see me as family — because I helped them in various ways.)

I tried to avoid Aster.  She was nine years younger than me and 17 when we met. One of her cousins had a shop on Hennepin and Lake called The Ethiopian Exquisite.  I was living on the corner of Hennepin and Lake above Synder Drugs. After school I would go to his store.  Elsa and Aster cooked for me.  Once I ate the food I was intoxicated.

Meeting Aster was magical, mystical, erotically charged.  She was a great story-teller. She connected me to a whole other world that I came from, but because of colonialism and the slave trade, I got separated from mother Africa, lost my language.

I went back to grad school in English Ed, which I hated.  The department had no substance, but I had a couple of teachers in the African American Studies department who affected me deeply. Victoria Coifman, and a visiting Nigerian writer.  I studied African American oral and written literature with Vicki.  She had studied with Jan Vansina, a prof at Univeristy of Wisconsin, Madison — the guy who helped Alex Haley figure out where his ancestors came from using key words.

I was blessed to be a student of Vicki’s for two years, before I quit grad school. The insights she gave me about oral literature were a revelation to me.  African cultures are both literate and oral.  Understanding the process of oral literature caused me to rethink how the Western world negates oral history.  It gave me a clarity that I didn’t have before, to discard the dynamic of feeling less than to White assumptions, about how human beings should be.

I don’t know if I can put into language the things that were coming through from Vicky to me.  It was spiritual; understanding a connection to Africa that I did not have before.

Another strain of my understanding was coming through Jewish American academics.  I don’t think they understand the connection between Africa and Israel.  They understand Jewishness through an Ashkenazi lens.  When the Romans charged into Palestine many of us fled south into North Africa, West Africa, and South Africa.  At the present time, because of DNA technology, they now know that African Jews aren’t making shit up.  I don’t want to over state the case but… I was conceived in an orthodox Jewish community, with a synagogue on the corner.  When my parents got married their Orthodox neighbors were pouring down the steps blessing this young couple who were getting married.

Last time I was in Africa, Armenians and Ethiopians were having lunch, comparing histories and realizing the connection between them.  In Ethiopia all of the Orthodox Churches have a replica of the Ark.  One church claims they have the one brought by Sheba from Israel.  Nobody can see it but this one guy.  We are told if anyone else sees it they will drop dead.

When I was living on the West Bank I came across this book called Neo-African Literature, written by a German scholar.  I read it from cover to cover.  I really soaked up that book. The point the author made was that the European mind wanted to separate  things and look at things in isolation. The African mind wanted to look at the connection between things.

African American Arts movement in Chicago.

When I would go home to Chicago to visit in the late 1960,s I witnessed the — beginning of Black Arts Movement.  I used to visit Ellis’s Bookstore, around 63rd and Stoney Island, on the south side of Chicago.  It was near a popular movie and stage theater called the Tivoli — a cultural hub for African American Chicago.  Restaurants, nightclubs, theaters, funeral homes, dentists.  The bookstore was a product of the civil rights movement.  I started to buy Black poetry there.  There was a Black Poets collective Organization of Black American Culture  (pronounced Obasi – Yoruba word for chieftain). They were mimeographing their own poetry, stapling it together and reading it in restaurants, bars and barbershops.  Poetry coming from and going to the people.

Haki Madhubuti was a leader of that movement. He started Third World Press. We were listening to our own speech — finding it filled with poetry.  Poetry was not only what they taught us in school which a lot of us were bored with.  We didn’t want work in the straight jacket of western forms.  One of our mentors, Gwendolyn Brooks, could step into the European sonnet form and rip it up and down the page.  When she was invited to sit with OBAC poets, something bloomed.  They changed each other.

I returned to Chicago in 1974, after breaking up with Aster.  I was really disoriented but I was able to step into the Black Arts Movement, and meet people who were Chicagoans, but also other people from the African diaspora coming in and out of the city.   I was exposed to the Association for Advancement of  Creative Musicians — a Black Musician’s collective.  I would hear them on Monday nights at a place called Transitions East.  I think it was started by  a man who just passed away — Phil Cohran.  Later he was given a name by some Chinese Muslims –Kelan.  Baba Phil — when he played with his group — it was hypnotic.  He taught me how art, music and science were connected.  Another man mentored me during that time.  I called him Baba Ben Israel. He was a leader of the Hebrew Israelites. He read the Torah with a Pan-Africanist perspective. He was my spiritual mentor for several years until I moved back here.

I ended up in a writers group organized by Gwendolyn Brooks that was started in the 1940s. When Langston Hughes came to town he would stay with Gwendolyn’s family and meet up with them.  One of my high school buddies wormed his way into it — had a girlfriend who was the daughter of group member.  I was pretty insecure about my writing.  They opened the door and were very affirming. I got to know Gwendolyn and her husband Henry — very kind and generous.

All I gathered in that experience in the Black arts movement I brought back to Minneapolis.

African American Cultural Arts Center of Minneapolis

As the Education Director of the African American Cultural Arts Center I met many local African American artists —  Seitu Jones, Ta-coumba Aiken, Soyini Guyton.  Strangely enough it also  brought me into closer contact with the American Indian community.  We were getting exhibits from the Smithsonian.  One of those exhibits focused on the intersection between African American and American Indian peoples.  The connection goes way back in Minnesota.  There was an African, George Bonga, brought to midwest by Frenchmen.  He and his brother married Ojibwe women.  George represented the Ojibwe to the U.S. government.  Because of  that exhibit, I invited a Native American school — maybe the Heart of the Earth Survival School — to come over.  Clyde Bellecourt came over with the students. That was maybe 1979.

Circles. Poor People’s Campaign, Meeting elder, Meridel LeSueur, Becoming an elder. 

The first time I saw Meridel LeSueur was the summer of 1968.  It was my last year of college.  I got a job in DC working for the Luthern Church.  They hired me go around in  African American community and gather information about what their communities needed.  At that time the Poor People’s March on Washington that King was organizing before he was assassinated, was happening.  People were camped out on Washington Mall. Andy Young spoke.  Then this old white women with grey hair and no teeth got up and spoke in this powerful way.  What I remembered is that she looked impoverished.

Years later at the African American Cultural Arts center, we extended an invitation for Gwendolyn Brooks to come speak.  After she spoke, this woman came up to me. She was reasonably dressed and had teeth, but I recognized her as the woman at the Poor People’s March.  Like a sheepish little girl, she asked if I would introduce her to Gwendolyn Brooks.  Which I did, not understanding the significance of what I was doing.  Gwendolyn and Meridel knew of each other but they had not yet met.

Meridel LeSueur ended up being a powerful mentor to me.  I began to understand why she was so supportive of me.  There are ways in which — philosophically — I was more in tune with her than Gwendolyn, even though I learn so much from Gwendolyn and that African Literary tradition.

Meridel was more of a model of artist/ parent/ activist.  Now I see her as a model of what it means to be an elder.  She was connected to a lot of different communities.  That is the way I am embodying the role of elder.  I am there for diverse cultural communities in a spiritual way.  I can’t run from it.  I can’t deny it. Now I need to model it for other people coming along.  If we are going have a new sustainable culture that somehow reflects us all and holds us all, we need multicultural leaders to do the nurturing and to bridge past, present and future.

We have come to the end of an epoch of patriarchy, the model that we have been given, where one nation seizes power and dominates.  That model is no longer functional.  Even in Europe that model is coming apart before our eyes.

In the Black Arts Movement in Chicago, we believed Black kingdoms would rise again and rule like we did long ago.  That is not going to happen, because that is not what time it is.  Today it is not a matter of one of culture taking control and dominating, but of how we weave the best of the various cultures together into another way of being, connected to the earth and her vital systems.

I need to figure out how to support the role I’m in.  There is no job description for the multicultural spiritual elder.  There is no one organization or entity that supports that.  I need a mix of people to, in some ongoing way, support that work, enough for me to fund food, clothing, shelter and maybe even my trips internationally that is a part of this work.

With the Sierra Leone Foundation for New Democracy,  slfnd.org, I am working on developing those values and skills in young people. When my students come back from Sierra Leone they understand we need to create a sustainable food system  multiculturally.

We don’t need guns. We don’t need to control anybody.  We need to figure out how to support everyone being their most powerful, dedicated to having a healthy thriving natural environment. Earth is our shared home.

Louis will be performing December 9 at the East Side Freedom Library with his group Ancestor Energy.  The concert title is: Judah, Buddha and Jazz

Minneapolis Project.