Below are two brief, personal histories on my arts and culture to illuminate why I do what I do.
A Life Motto and Theme Song
I am a star.
I can do great things.
My Star shines bright….
For seven years, I uttered these words as a student at the Bronx’s Mind Builders Creative Arts Center. As an adult, when I recalled my ten-year-old self–eyes rolling and sighing heavily as I said the “stupid” poem–I asked my mother, a founding board member of Mind Builders: “What was the point of reciting that poem and singing This Little Light of Mind in ever summer camp and after-school class?” Her response to my rant was brief: “You never had low self-esteem.”
I was dumbstruck. After years of trying to affirm what experts called “the instrumental” values of the arts (“music makes you a better math student”) and fielding “what-are-you-going-to-do-with-an-art-degree?” or “why-should-we-fund-an-art-program?” questions, I should have realized that the greatest value was the intrinsic one acquired from my arts participation. My life had a motto and a theme song, planted years ago in a community arts center.
I was a Black, African American, granddaughter of Caribbean immigrants, female youth of Native American heritage, born to non-college graduates, who grew up in an urban African American and Latino Bronx, New York community, and educated as a student of color in the public school system. I was also secure in my self-identity and my infinite capabilities, despite being many of the “buzzwords” that theorists claim as primary factors of low self-esteem and low achievement.
Through my years of arts participation, I learned that education isn’t solely contained within classroom walls. From reading Maya Angelou, I learned both history and how to fry fish. From Suzuki violin, I learned about parental involvement in the learning environment. From theater, I learned to be confident before a crowd. Finally, African dance taught me to celebrate all that I am.
I’m surprised that some argue that going to Harvard was a bold move from a public school and state school graduate. Since I’ve been a “first instrument” all my life, I’m used to being a leader. I learned to play violin age at 7, the trumpet at 12, and studied as a lyric soprano in high school and college.
I value the arts because I live them. I want to continue the legacy left by late mother who believed in the power of the arts to change an individual and a community. I want to pass on the values that were cultivated in me during my time at Mind Builders, at LaGuardia High School, at Hartt School of Music, and at UMass Dartmouth, so that one day a person who fits the profile of an education “statistic” will be able to say, “I am a star, I can do great things,” and know that these are not just words, but truth.
Heritage and Culture
When I was a kid growing up in New York City, I was constantly asked where my accent was from. In response, I developed a saying:
Both my parents are half Caribbean and half Southern, I grew up in a Black and Latino neighborhood, went to school in an all Italian one, and both my parents close friends were Puerto Rican, so I never learned how to pronounce anything.
My complexion, hair, and hazel eyes, offered me opportunities to visually be a part of many communities. I learned to speak Spanish, because as a Bronx girl, I grew tired of people assuming I was Puerto Rican. I moved to Connecticut and classmates thought I was half Jewish and half Black. Living in Southern New England, people thought I was either Wampanoag or Cape Verdean and spoke Kriol or Portuguese. In France people believed me to be half Senegalese-half French.
Ethnically, my primary identity is that of an African American. My Caribbean family is Jamaican and Antiguan, and my American family is of African, Native and European descent, many of whom called the North Carolina region their home since the 1600s or time antiquity. My extended family is also of Puerto Rican and Maliseet descent, through marriages and other relationships.
Culturally, I am a third generation New Yorker–a Bronx girl to be specific– living in New England (where I spent a lot of time during my adolescent years).
Time, racism, a narrow landscape of history, inaccurate accounting and census records, and numerous other factors make family history and genealogy a challenge for many people; my family is no different. My inspiration and motivation is to give people the opportunity to reclaim their heritage, to hold on to their language and stories so that the generations to come won’t have the same struggles we have had.