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. 

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