Friday, April 8, 2016

We can be Heroes

I particpated in the Woodstock Writer's Festival Story Slam last night.  I did not win, but I had fun.  Here is the story I told.

    I always wanted a hero who looked like me. I looked for her everywhere, in books in plays, and movies, but she was missing in action.
    At age five, I mounted my fist production of Peter Pan. I was ten when I produced it again. Both times I played Peter, and directed, and I cued everyone on their lines from the stage.  The nuns worried about me wanting to be a boy. I told them that they had it all wrong. Peter was a woman who didn’t want to grow up to be a man. Every production I’d ever seen had a woman playing Peter. Peter was my hero. A brave orphan who could fly, which is who I thought I might be under different circumstances.
    When I was eleven I attended a boarding school in Mexico. Returning home for the winter holidays I filled out the immigration form on my own for the first time. Under race I put human. I was detained until I chose a race. Though I pointed out that what they really wanted was my ethnicity. December 1967, I became a Negro.
    In high school I led a protest of the Vietnam War. Threatened with suspension, ten of us sat out on the lawn singing protest songs and sneaking cigarettes in the bushes. In a school of a couple hundred, 10 is a significant number, so instead of suspending us, they created courses in civil disobedience. I learned that being brave can effect change, but no one ever called us heros. 1970, I became an activist.
    When my kids were little I used heros to teach them the large arc lessons of bravery.
    “I think the bravest humans beings on the planet are superheroes,” I would bait.     “Yeah, because they have super powers,” my son would lisp through missing teeth.
    “Nah,” I’d say, “You’d have to be totally brave to get away with wearing underwear over tights AND a cape.” I think he got the point.
    When Amadou Diallo was shot 41 times for being black in America I was contacted to participate in organized civil disobedience, to be arrested blocking the doors to the NYC police precinct. I explained to my children why it was important to break the law, if the laws were unjust or unfairly applied. I told them that I might not be home that night, but that I hoped they would be proud of me, that they would think me a hero. I went to jail in excellent company. Ruby Dee and Ozzie Davis were arrested at the same time, we were held in the same cell. Two of my own heroes. 1999, the year I was arrested.
    When I came home from jail my son asked me if I wore underwear over my tights.
    “Yes,” I assured him, “and I had on my invisible cape.”
    We can be heros, all of us, but just for one day at a time please. Hero is too costly a suit to wear everyday, and underwear over tights is completely impractical.

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