BFP Interviews actress/poet/playwright Dael Orlandersmith!

Listen to Excerpts of this interview!

A few months ago I had the great honor of being connected with an amazing sista, Dael Orlandersmith through a good friend who saw we have mutual interests (Good lookin out, Bruce!). Dael’s writing often involves the veracity of the family. I’m no literary critic, however, I see her work as a beautiful depiction of the tragedy that black families experience in America. She describes it much better than I. In fact, I should just let you read the conversation we had, cause it’s dope and she dropped major knowledge on your boy!

JORDAN THIERRY: How did you get first get into writing?

DAEL ORLANDERSMITH: I grew up in the 60s and early 70s in Harlem and the South Bronx, NY. Where I lived it was central Harlem, but if you’d go down the block it was the barrio. I am African American, but I also include Nuyorican—New York Puerto Rican—as part of my culture. It was tough back then. Now it’s getting gentrified, but that part of Harlem is still rough. I grew up a lot around a lot of addiction, a lot of prostitution, cops on the street then—there were few black and Hispanic cops. You had cops harassing black and Hispanic kids just for the hell of it, but at the same time you had people who deserved to get hassled because it was just rough. I mean, it went from Heroin to Dust, back to Heroin, to Crack-Cocaine, where its at today.
It was very hard to live on the day-to-day basis. My thing was to not get pregnant, to not become a dope-fiend. That was not a problem for me, but other people wanted to take you down with them.

What I would tend to do was stay out of those situations. My fighting was not so much about “oh you want to be in my gang”, but instead “oh there goes the freak” because she’s listening to other stuff, and she’s doing different things than other people on the block. I grew up during the disco/funk era, which I did like, but I was also a rock fan, which separated me. So people would be like “oh there’s the white girl, she’s listening to rock and roll.”

In any hood, part of the reason people are oppressed, beyond the socio-economic reasons, is because people take on the very biases and perpetuate them. So for instance, in order for you to be black or Hispanic you have to live in the hood—that’s just the brainwashing that comes from racism. Or in order for you to be black, you “have” to listen to a certain kind of music.

Certainly, there is racism, but also there is the individual. There’s a great writer named Robert Burns who said, “Beyond race, beyond color, beyond gender, you are a citizen of the world.”

As a teen I was coming down to the east village to hang out, and I read a lot, so, I there was something beyond where I was, but I just had very few people in my life to validate that.

JT: Was there a person in particular who put you on to the Arts?
DO: It was my own exploration. In my immediate household, I found a classical record, and I wondered where the hell it came from. It was my mother’s record, and she was a black woman of a certain time, who was bitter and it was a wasted intelligence to a certain degree. There were certain things that she did expose me to, but then would reject it for some strange reason. She worked everyday, but she also suffered from alcoholism, and people with substance abuse/addictions, while they can be very sensitive people, they can also be very mean-spirited and selfish. So, I would say 85% of my exploration was innate.

JT: Is MONSTER the most autobiographical content you’ve written?
DO: All of it is. Most people have interesting stories. A lot of MONSTER has to do with me, a lot of it has nothing to do with me. A lot of it comes out of the imagination. What happened with that genre, the reason why I began to write one-person stuff, in the 70s and 80s the roles for black people weren’t that great. Now for black males, the work is better; for black females its not much better. So I began to write my own stuff.

What happened in the late 80s, early 90s and beyond, is that people began to write these autobiographical things because they were unemployed actors. And most fof these people have interesting stories, but that doesn’t mean it is a piece of theater because theater is about language, and its about a beginning, a middle, an end, a story, a conflict, and a resolution.

JT: Can you tell me about your growth as a writer and your involvement with the Nuyorican Poets Café?
DO: I was initially involved with the Nuyorican as a teenager. The founder Miguel Pinero was a drug addict, and there were problems with people getting paid, and with all the problems the café ended up closing. So I left, went to college, and kept a journal, and came back in the late 80s/early 90s. I had been writing these narrative poems, so I decided to combine these characters from my poems and that’s how I started writing poems.

JT: Can you talk about the consistency of your writing dealing with parents and family?
DO: I tend to write about the sins of the father and the sins of the mother. The author Kahlil Gibran, writes in his book THE PROPHET, “Your pass through you, they are not of you.” I think there are certain people on the planet who should not have kids. And as people get older they say “I did the best that I could” and of course if their kids turn out badly they want nothing to do with them and if they turn out well they claim responsibility. So I think it goes both ways/ Sometimes kids have to give birth to themselves. So I tend to write about the darker side of human nature, its just something that interests me. I’m very interested in the struggle to become oneself, one whole. I’m also very interested in “the outsider.” The person we see everyday who no one pays attention to and when you look at them, you say to yourself, “my God, how did that person get there?” Because there were certain circumstances that led that person there. Now having said all of that, you also have personal choice. Because no matter how hard the circumstances, you have to give birth to yourself. It’s easy just say “I had a bad childhood or whatever”, but it’s very important if you come from that type of background to NOT become your parents.

JT: But how can one do that?
DO: You have to see a very good therapist. Lol. But it could be conventional religion or spirituality, or, like what I do, you take it and you put it into something like language or a paintbrush, it becomes transformative and universal.

JT: In MONSTER, the character Marsha is suicidal, obviously because of her circumstances. Do children innately have the ability to overcome this type of thing themselves or do they need something else?
DO: Even with her, to a certain degree, although Marsha is tragic, the act of suicide is a vicious act because what it does is punish the people that are living. Although her loneliness is understandable, its like she’s trying to make someone else responsible for it.

I was reading about this woman who experienced the concentration camps during the holocaust, who said something like, “I know that among all these Germans there is one good German, and that one good German should not be seen as an animal at the expense of all of them.” How the hell do you get to that type of thinking? Similar to what Mandela thought, who recently had dinner with some of the people who jailed him. So I think even in the most severe circumstances, there is that one iota , that mico/nano second where you know that there is a choice, and that’s the one that you have to follow which will alter your entire life.

So even with someone who is a kid, the struggle is knowing that there is a struggle, and within that struggle you are questioning whether what you are doing is right or wrong.

Traditionally for those who do commit suicide, they don’t do it right away/they have to lead up to it because they are struggling with their own conscious.

JT: In MONSTER, when Emma talks about Theresa’s mother, and how she used to be a good woman but got lost along the way, is that “getting lost”, how is that prevalent in American families?
DO: I have a certain empathy with Theresa’s mother. She is the character that you don’t have to like, but you have to understand her. But what annoys me about that character/ man and woman/ is that they don’t utilize their choices. Like for the kid Marsha, I have more sympathy. But you must know on a certain level, when you’re drinking and drugging like that, and you have a child in the world, you are now endangering your kid. Do I realize in that community that racism plays a certain role? Yes. But as one gets older, because the mother in that story is well grown, (in a weird kind of a way I do understand her) but I despise the fact that she exposed her kid to that stuff. And yes it is very prevalent in our community but in major communities as well.

JT: The character’s in YELLOWMAN, are very interesting to me, especially the father who envied his son, but provided for him through and through, materially at least.
DO: There is a different kind of abuse with YELLOWMAN. Exactly like you said, yeah he provided. The version of abuse that people often have, particularly non-white people, are “we drink/we drug/we kid our kids in the ass.” The flipside of it is, this man is abusive as well. Because these people have a beautiful house, and its perfumed, vaccumed, air-conditioned, most people outside of the situation would have asked “what’s he complaining about/he’s got it all?”.

The reason I made them affluent, is because there are affluent black people. But also because these people experience racism, taken with the sins of the mother and the sins of the father, and this family took it on and perpetuated it with their kid. But to me it all comes down to individual choice. And you see that with Eugene and Alma as well.

Looking at the characters, it is a lot about masculinity. The flipside to that masculinity is quadrupled, when it is non-white. The way we survived slavery, and you see this with people on the streets, you were not allowed to show any sort of vulnerability. When we came up, it was like “You better not cry!”. Because you can’t let anybody know whats going on with you. Because we were treated as animals, in a weird way that legacy is still there. You don’t show that youre human. You’re super hard and your super stuff. You’re told you’re an animal and you take on the behavior of an animal. But even animals break down. And when people talk about there is no suicide in the black community, all you need to look at is the drug addictions, alcoholism, high blood pressure and all that stuff. There’s also this expression suicide by cop, where you see cats with the police yelling, “yeah mothafucka kill me! Kill me!” Why would you put yourself in that position? That is very suicidal. The masculinity is based upon some sort of self-loathing, that stems from slavery.

JT: In YELLOWMAN you talk about maintaining the cool and how that distracts you from taking care of your business.
DO: It also extends to the woman thing as well, because you are not supposed to let anyone see you cry. I’m sure you’ve seen women who can fight as good as a man. You have to maintain your cool in terms of the hood. Its about putting on a mask.
In YELLOWMAN, where being a gentleman is considered weak. Eugene is indeed a man, but we’ve taught our boys and our men, no matter what color you are, “if you cry you’re a punk, if you cry you’re a pussy.” I mean, you have tear ducts for a reason, don’t you?

JT: Thank you for your time Dael! ONE LOVE!


New Study Released on Racial Disproportionality in Child Welfare

The Alliance for Racial Equity in Child Welfare recently released a study where they scanned eleven states in search of contributing efforts to fight the reality that children of color involved with the child welfare system generally experience worse outcomes than non-minority children. You can read the report HERE.

It's problematic that so many children in the system are not receiving the type of support and placement that the state and fed gov't intend for and can afford. Secondly, I find it problematic, and telling of the adoption system, that many adoptive parents choose to adopt children from abroad instead of their own state.

This report documents the public policy changes that are being put in place to improve the experience and outcomes of children of color within the system.



Found at:

Attorney General Eric Holder Gets on Black Fathers: Why He is Wrong
By Boyce Watkins, PhD on Dec 15th 2009 7:59PM

In his recent blog post, Elliot Millner brought it to my attention that Attorney General Eric Holder is acting as if he's been spending time with Bill Cosby. During a speech at a black church in Queens, N.Y., Holder took a page out of the Barack Obama campaign catalog and chose to win favors with the black middle class by recklessly bashing absentee fathers and returning to the "y'all just need to grow up and be more responsible" argument that allows any politician to explain away a blatant disregard for meaningful public policy. Rather than talking about things that we can do as a society to take our collective foot off the necks of black men, he chose to point out that black men are largely responsible for their own disenfranchisement.

Millner, who is also in the legal profession, says things in a way that Eric Holder is unable, because, unlike Holder, Millner is not constrained by the political shackles that come with being an appointed leader in a country that makes a habit of oppressing, destroying and marginalizing black men.

In his speech, Holder said, "It should simply be unacceptable for a man to have a child and then not play an integral part in the raising and nurturing of the child."

That quote is a nice way of reflecting on the obvious. It's sort of like saying, "It should be unacceptable for a black man to become the attorney general of the United States and not play an integral part in helping other black men overcome the blatantly racist and destructive justice system over which you preside."

If I were in that church in Queens, that is the speech I would have given to Holder. As Millner correctly states in his article, "Beyond the lip service, both President Obama and A.G. Holder are in positions to exert influence in areas that play a significant role in why many black fathers are absent."

This is not to say that Eric Holder isn't working to help with the long list of reasons that the justice system has been one of the most destructive forces facing black men today. It's easy to attack African American men for their lack of presence in the households of their children. It makes no sense, however, to make these attacks without spending a second holding yourself accountable for addressing the systemic causes of their absence. That is like telling a starving child that he needs to stop losing weight but keeping a lock on the refrigerator.

Holder does not need an education, so I am not going to give him one. As Millner states very clearly, the list of thoughts that immediately run through the mind of any black man with a working brain cell are going to be the following:

1) One in three black men in their twenties is under some form of supervision by the justice system. It's tough to be a dad when you live in a nation that has adopted mass incarceration of black men as the way to get cheap labor. Then, for those men who try to reintegrate in to society, there are hurdles to employment and education that Holder and others have yet to remedy. A man can't take care of his family if he is in prison, and it's difficult for him to feed his family if no one will hire him. If you want to solve many of the parenting problems, you can start by not putting so many fathers in the penitentiary, especially those guilty of non-violent offenses or who've been convicted because they could not get adequate legal counsel. By the way, it may help to give them rehabilitation options while they are incarcerated, rather than simply punishing them.

2) Attorney Holder, did you also know that black male unemployment is as high as 40 percent to 50 percent in many urban areas? What do you think whites would do to you if they were facing 40 percent unemployment and had to hear you give them a speech about personal responsibility? If whites are screaming about 10 percent unemployment, how would they respond to the unemployment rates experienced by our community?

3) Mr. Holder, can you please take a visit to your buddy Barack Obama and let him know that the inner-city educational systems put black boys in special education at a rate that is five times higher than white kids? Please also explain to the president that many of these young men are not being taught to read and are being pushed out in to an economic system with few opportunities, leading them right to the penitentiaries. I am not sure how much time Columbia University (where Holder attended law school, like the rest of his Ivy League chums) spends teaching about the school-to-prison pipeline, but he might want to read up on it.

4) Oh yeah, Mr. Holder, with all due respect, there are quite a few white absentee fathers also. The divorce rate in white America is more than 50 percent, which means that, technically, half of all white dads are not in the homes with their kids. The next time you go speak to a group of white Americans, I dare you to give the same speech you're giving in African American churches. White folks aren't so quick to allow a black man to come in to their churches to tell them that they are screwed up and that the government (for which they pay taxes) has no responsibility in helping with their plight. For some reason, black people are very good at beating up on themselves.

5) Mr. Holder, just in case you and President Obama are unaware, there's usually a woman involved in most heterosexual relationships. Do you think it might be possible that some men are excluded from the lives of their children by the child's mother, or have we decided to simply follow the trend and blame the black male for every single one of society's ills? When specifically addressing the break down of the black family, we may want to move past the "black man musta done it" model of analysis. There are thousands of black men across America who've been estranged from their children by mothers who've become overbearing in the management of their children's lives. This is not to say that all mothers are in the wrong, but we all know that both women and men are not perfect.

I respect Attorney General Holder, but it is my hope that the black faces hanging out in the Oval Office can be a bit more creative when it comes to solving problems in our nation. When white America moans about 10 percent unemployment, they get stimulus packages. When black men speak up about 40 percent to 50 percent unemployment, we get speeches on personal responsibility. The double standard is as glaring as the shine on Rush Limbaugh's forehead. Eric Holder, I expect you to show a bit more personal responsibility. Do something productive with the power you've got. Don't just sit around and preserve it.


Fatherhood Bill article by Glenn Sack

Article appeared in Huffington Post, June 23. Author: Glenn Sack

With support from President Obama, Senator Evan Bayh (D-IN) and Congressman Danny Davis (D-IL) introduced the Responsible Fatherhood and Healthy Families Act of 2009 for Father's Day, a bill cosponsored by then-Senator Barack Obama in the last Congress. Obviously Bayh and Davis have to contend with DC political realities, which work against fathers and make rational legislation to help them politically difficult. Still, this Responsible Fatherhood bill will help bureaucrats and others far more than it helps dads, and in some ways it will hurt fathers.

According to Bayh's press release, the legislation will:

1) "Ensure that child support payments to families do not count as income and result in loss of food stamps."

That's nice for low-income mothers, who can probably use the help, but it doesn't directly help the noncustodial fathers who are paying this child support.

2) "Restore cuts in federal child support enforcement funding to help state and local governments collect $13 billion in additional payments for single parents"

This hurts low-income men who, unable to make the unrealistic payments demanded of them, are already harassed and jailed by the multi-billion dollar child support apparatus. Obama/Bayh/Davis want to increase funding for child support enforcement, even though the Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement’s own data show that two-thirds of “deadbeat dads” earn poverty-level wages, and only 4 percent earn even $40,000 a year. This situation has been made far worse by the recession.

This measure won't help mothers either, because there's little money to collect from most so-called "deadbeats" anyway. What this measure does is help keep and expand employment for child support enforcement bureaucrats. To learn more, see a newspaper column I wrote about child support enforcement funding here.

President Barack Obama's new economic stimulus package already provided $1 billion for fattening up child support enforcement's bloated budget. The standard argument in favor of this is superficially convincing -- "More than $4 was collected in support for every dollar invested in the program."

It is true that federal figures show that over $20 billion in child support is collected nationwide yearly, and that only $5 billion is spent on enforcement. However, the vast majority of the funds collected are not done through enforcement tactics -- they're simply the payments already being made by law-abiding noncustodial parents. These payments will continue to be made regardless of the cuts.

The $4 for $1 myth was created by incorrectly counterposing total collections with expenditures on enforcement. To give child support enforcement credit for all child support collections is like the collections department at Target being credited every time a customer buys something and pays at the register. The mainstream media has largely declined to discuss this Enron-style accounting.

3) "Require states to send 100 percent of all child support payments to the single parent within five years, rather than letting states take a portion of money for administrative costs."

Currently many noncustodial fathers—particularly African-American and Latino fathers, upon whom Obama often focuses—are required to pay their child support to the state to reimburse the cost of public assistance, instead of to the children’s mothers. This new measure helps low-income mothers, and that's a good thing. It's also a modest positive for fathers -- paying "child support" that doesn't go to your children is demoralizing for low-income men struggling to make a difference in their kids’ lives.

4) "Fund programs designed to protect the families who have been affected by domestic violence."

Protecting battered women is important, but domestic violence laws and programs have also made it easy for unscrupulous mothers to drive fathers out of their children's lives by making false accusations of domestic violence. As many prominent family law professionals have noted, this is a major problem, particularly as it applies to domestic violence restraining orders, which are issued almost automatically. To learn more, see my column Restraining Orders Can Be Straitjackets On Justice (Newark Star-Ledger, 7/28/08).

The bill does have a few provisions which actually pertain to fathers:

1) "Fund job training programs and community partnerships to help parents find employment."

Although often these programs' real purpose is to bring fathers into the system so they can pay child support, it can still be a good thing for fathers, if it's run properly.

2) "Fund financial literacy programs and budgeting education, employment services, and mediation and conflict resolution for low-income parents."

This helps mothers at least as much as fathers but is a good idea, if the programs are effective.

3) "Expand the Earned Income Tax Credit to increase the incentive for full-time work and fulfillment of child support obligations."

Fathers pay child support out of after-tax dollars, whereas mothers receive child support tax free. If this program helps ameliorate that, it's a good thing.

While some fathers voluntarily remove themselves from their children’s lives, many seek a greater role. Most child custody arrangements provide fathers only a few days a month to spend with their children, and fighting for shared parenting is expensive and difficult. Custodial mothers frequently fail to honor visitation orders, and there is no system in place to help enforce visitation orders. The Obama/Bayh/Davis "Fatherhood" bill does little to address the real problems separating fathers from the children who love them and need them.
Glenn Sacks is the Executive Director of Fathers & Families, the nation's largest family court reform organization. Fathers and Families, a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization, improves the lives of children and strengthens society by protecting the child's right to the love and care of both parents after separation or divorce.

President Obama on Fatherhood


NFL MVP and Father of 4 Killed

NFL MVP Steve McNair was found dead, with gunshot wounds to the head, on July 4, 2009. Steve was a father to four sons in Mississippi, one of which is a star high school quarterback. McNair played for the Houston Oilers, Tennessee Titans and Baltimore Ravens, and was selected to the Pro Bowl three times. He was the co-NFL MVP in 2003.

It is a tragedy that four black boys have are now fatherless due to violence in our community. Steve McNair not only was a father, but an athlete that so many black youth saw as a role model. My prayers go out to his family and especially his now fatherless sons.