Rebecca West: The First Renaissance Woman I Met

Interview conducted in 1996

After welcoming us, Angela and Dottye and I, Rebecca was talking excited about how a night before somebody broke her car parked in front of her house, and stole the only thing available - a book. “It’s not bad, maybe they’ll read it,” she laughed. “It never happened before here, but it’s so hot that no kids were out in the street and we couldn’t hear when they broke it because of the noise from the air conditioner.”
I told Rebecca that I just go around asking people, and I learn as I go along, and maybe in the end after I’ve done all of my research I’d come to a conclusion and make whatever statement I needed to make.
It was the same with her work, she said. "I think that’s more open-minded. If you already believe it then you don’t have to go around proving it. It will be that way for you.”
She was intimidating to me. She was recognized as actress, playwright, director, teacher, activist. I didn’t dare to tell her that I am also all kinds of things only I feel uneasy to introduce myself as a “renaissance woman”, because it sounds crazy. But why, there was a Michelangelo after all... People always told me I have to concentrate on one thing, as if something was wrong with having several aptitudes. Nobody is mentioned in the arts history to have preached to Michelangelo concentration.
She just printed herself a crowded business card with all these professions on it. I wanted to learn from her. I was nervous about myself.
Maybe it wasn’t because of the communist system, maybe my approach was off.
Angela and Dottye went to have their brunch together.
I had the privilege of asking whatever I needed to know, and she told me about herself, without asking me about myself.

“Coming to Chicago eventually my family moved into the housing projects, which is government sponsored housing where low income families - mostly families who are on welfare receiving government assistance - live. These buildings can be twenty stories high, they build them all in one area of town, so you’re talking about thousands and thousands of people stacked up on top of each other in these little cubicles, small apartments. They become very violent, very tensed environments to grow up in. Mainly because the overriding atmosphere is just a complete loss of hope. There isn’t the opportunity to get ahead and there is the feeling that you’ll just live the rest of your life in the project, you’ll never get out, you’ll never own a home, you’ll never get a nicer apartment. With all of the people who are unemployed there is a lot of idle time, sitting around. Nothing to do. No money. People get filled with anger, hatred, frustration and they acted out on each other. A lot of drinking, taking drugs. A lot of violence in the families.
“For me as a child I grew up the world was all black. I was never around white people except in public places, on a bus or when we went out to the movies. I had no white friends, I never talked to white people except if I was in a store or something like that. Very segregated... The schools that I went to were all black, the churches, everything, all black.
“We had this image of ourselves as black people, at least I did, and a lot of the young people of my age had the same image, of just being stupid. The reason in our minds that we were segregated and separated from the rest of the society and hated so much was because we were still basically like slaves. We thought we were slaves. We thought that we were stupid even though we didn’t experienced being stupid when we were around our own kind. But it was just like ‘they must think we’re really stupid, so they don’t want to be around us.’
“When we started the theater company it was a chance to express yourself and to discover your intelligence, your creativity, your strength, your beauty. Also to give you some idea of history, of what happened to our people - the plays would focus on the lives of black people in America throughout the history of this country - and why we were so angry about a lot of things. It was a creative outlet. We did everything: we sang, we dance, we wrote, we acted, we painted the sets. It was a very, very healthy outlet. Because there was a sense of you could get ahead in life, there were a lot of things that you could accomplish.
“All of us were young people - I was five years old. The man who started the company basically just went around and gathered kids off the street, because we had very little to do living in those poor neighborhoods. The tendency was to get involved in negative kinds of activities: petty theft, fights, gangs. What he was trying to do was to stop us from getting engaged in things that were gonna be negative and detrimental. Being with this theater company it really helped me to balance my sense of frustration about being so poor. It helped me a lot in school.
“By the time I was in my mid twenties, which was in the 1960s, it was a really powerful time to be growing up in America and it affected my vision of myself and my vision of life very, very radically. Politically that was a really critical time because it was the closest thing to a political revolution that we’ve ever had. There were political groups who were directly out to overthrow the government, and even to those who were not necessarily try to overthrow the government, they were trying to change the basic idea of what the society is supposed to be about.
“At that point in my life I had a lot of hope. I had big dreams. I wanted to be the first black woman senator from the state of Illinois. I wanted to be in government service, and I thought about running for governor of the state. I wasn’t thinking about being an actress. No, not at all. I enjoyed it very much and I was very good at it, but I didn’t see it as being a career because I didn’t think you could make any money doing it, that was the way it looked.
“Also in movies, in television, in theater, at that time there were no black people, everything we saw, was all white people and occasionally you could see a black person but they always played the stupid ones. Or the maids or the butlers or the fill hands. We never saw ourselves in a dignified way on screen at all.
“If you dreamt about being a movie star, you would have to be some white woman with blond hair and blue eyes and all of that, and that wasn’t me, so there was no hope. I just never even considered it and I really had these other hopes of being in politics and even through that I thought that I could make a change.
“There was a huge confrontation in Chicago around the Democratic Convention in 1967. I was involved in that. It got very violent because a lot of people were demonstrating at the Convention for equal rights and to stop the war in Vietnam that was going pretty strong at that time. It was one of the first times that it was seen on American television the police firing tear gas and bullets at American citizens. Not that it hadn’t happened before! There were also black and white and men and women and they were doing that to everybody. It was a rude awakening for all the country to see that.
“It was a rude awakening for me because I had never had that happened to me before and suddenly I was tear-gassed and beaten and arrested. When I was beaten in the park I suddenly realized at that moment with the police officer who was hitting me over the head and the tear gas and we had been running because they just spread so much tear gas we were just running and I didn’t even see when the officer approach me, and he wasn’t really looking at me, they were just running through the crowd, beating people like that and I remember really clearly laying there on the ground, because they were saying to stay down on the ground because the gas goes up, if you stay on the ground you get away from it faster, I was crawling there on the ground, I felt like here I am in America hahaha! This isn’t supposed to happen here! I started crying mostly from the gas but also being very disillusioned: I realized at that moment that this society had no idea what kind of person I was, that I had anything decent and good and worthy about me and that all they see is black skin and that’s it!
“I became very, very, very, angry after that. The idea of being in the Senate, being a part of the government became loathsome to me, I just thought that I could never do that. It’s a racist, sexist, classist government.
“It was really shocking but it was also very radicalizing because if I had any sense of what this country was about, if there was any potential hope for a young black woman to fulfill her dreams, what I wanted to do with my life, all that hope virtually got dashed right in that moment. When I realized that my life in many ways had changed forever, right in that moment, because I saw myself differently and I saw my country very differently, I became very, very politically active after that.
“I left Chicago because people had been killed on the streets. I had several friends who had been shot by the police on street. People were being arrested, harassed, and I knew it was just a matter of time before something more would happen to me, so I left and ended up here in Washington. By that time I had graduated from high-school and I was in college and I dropped out of college, and became a radical haha! My idea was to overthrow the government! I completely haha! flipped from one kind of activity to a completely different one. I completely changed my appearance. Up to that point I wore high heel shoes every day, I wore makeup, I had straight hair, I wore really nice clothes. I made a point of looking well, because I just had this attitude of ‘I’m gonna be a senator,’ so that was my image.
“When this happened, somebody could do one of those before-and-after pictures, hahaha! I was a completely different person hihi! I stopped straightening my hair, I stopped wearing makeup. At that time also the sexual revolution was going on, when everybody was sleeping with everybody. I started doing that. I started taking drugs.
“I just changed completely much to the dismay of my parents and all the people who had helped me, the director of the theater company... They just couldn’t figure out what was happening to me, ‘Why, why are you doing this?!’ and they never really thought that I just lost all hope, that I just have any sense any longer of where I was going. I’m lucky that it was very important to me to be involved in the arts, because if I would not be in a creative track, I would probably be dead. Some of the things that I took off and did for a while were highly, highly dangerous and a lot of people did die.
“I was still a learner, I had left school but I still read a lot and I still observed and I thought and I dialogued with people. I still was very active mentally - because that fed into the productions that I would do. I think is essentially positive, even when you’re writing about something bad, the fact that you are writing about it rather than haha! learning, you know, how to make bombs haha! or something like that - which is what I thought I would do for a while haha! Learn how to use a gun, make bombs. But I just never got to doing that because I was channeling that frustration into the theater work. That kept me out of heavy trouble.
“You have a son.”
“...Having to raise my son has been very painful watching him discover the racism in this culture. I haven’t taught it to him, I try very much to say, ‘Just be yourself and follow your dreams!’ I try very much to keep his dreams alive, so that he doesn’t have to get through the pain that I lived through in losing them.
“But the racism in this culture is unavoidable. I have a lot of frustration and anger and pain about that but, once again, rather than acting it out in a negative way I write plays about it, and I perform and I teach and I dialogue with people so that I’m always operating in a creative framework and that keeps me from being negatively angry. I have a lot of righteous anger but it has a positive channel, so it never turns to anything destructive. And I’ve taught him that: he is a painter and a photographer and a film maker, he does a lot of creative things, he’s a really good writer also, and because of that he stayed away from the gangs and the drugs and all the negative influences that could have overtaken him as he became more angry and frustrated in the same way that I did. But he is saved by that creative energy.”
“How did he discover racism?”
“Some of it it’s very subtle, and some of it it’s very overt. He has been raised in what I would call a radical tradition: he was born at home, he’s always gone to alternative schools, or private schools and he only went to the public school system for a very short period of time. All of the schools that he went to were creative in their style of teaching. I am very proud of how he was raised and what he’s done with what he learned. But because of that it’s like being segregated twice haha! He is bi-racial, his father is white, so he is segregated because of that, and then growing up in a non-traditional household he is segregated because of that.”
“Why you wanted to segregate him?”
“Haha! Because the public school system teaches racism. I don’t think any black person should go to public school, mainly because you will never learn anything about yourself that is positive, you will never learn anything about your culture, and in fact what you will learn about your culture will make you hate yourself. That was what happened to me: I always thought that black people accepted slavery, that we just let ourselves be brought from Africa, and put here because we were stupid in Africa and so now, we were stupid here.
“When I was a child that’s what I thought, until I got out of school and I began to read about Africa and its culture, and the powerful culture that that is and all the different tribes and heritages and how advanced that culture was. And then hear that we never accepted slavery, that we were rebelling from the moment they tried to take us out of Africa to ships that they brought us over here, until we got here. We were always fighting. You’re never taught that in school. Never! It is really impossible for a black person to maintain self esteem in a system that is teaching you to hate yourself. So I really felt, ‘Why should I give my son to them to teach him to be stupid?!’
“And not only you don’t learn about yourself, you don’t learn about anybody else either, you don’t learn about Native American people, you don’t learn about Latin American people, and for that matter, which I’m starting to learn now, you don’t even really learn about European people! You are only taught about a very narrow segment of this culture, but the history of the Irish people, of the Slavic people, you don’t really learn, except what they want you to learn in order to support this system of government.
“It’s just not very good education, so I didn’t want to put him in a situation where he was gonna be miseducated. I wanted him to learn about himself and about the world, so I always put him in schools where he was gonna get that education, knowing at the same time that it was gonna create a problem for him, because he’s not socialized in the same way that kids who were part of the main stream culture become socialized. But haha! I didn’t want him to become socialized like them anyway, haha! He is a very mature, well spoken, well read person, he is really a terrific person haha!
“But as soon as he got old enough to begin to move out into the world and to deal with people on his own, he started getting it right away. Young white kids asking him things like, ‘Why is your skin that colored, are you dirty? Why don’t you go and take a shower and wash that off!’
“When he was three or four years old, we lived in a predominantly white neighborhood and there were people who even though he would be playing out on the street with their children, they wouldn’t let him come in the house to play because they thought he’s gonna steal something. I was trying very much to try to figure out how to explain that to him without making him hateful and angry, and it was really difficult to do, I’m not even sure that I was very successful, but what I tried to explain to him is, ‘They are the ones who had the problem, you were not the problem, If someone won’t let you in their house it’s because they are afraid, not because you’ve done anything, but because they are afraid, because they are limited and because they’re... stupid,’ haha! Just like that. ‘Why should you want be around stupid people anyway?’ haha! ‘Find some other friends!’ Eventually we moved out of that neighborhood and moved into a predominantly black neighborhood where we lived ever since.
“But when he was early in his teen years, you had all kinds of incidents happen. Once he was in a store and some friends were waiting for him outside, they were riding bicycles and he went in to buy something to drink, and he was walking around the store looking to see if he wanted something else and as he was going up to the counter to pay for his drinks, his friends were outside, so he walked by the door, and opened the door to say, ‘I’ll be out in a minute!’ The store keeper thought that he was leaving the store and stealing the stuff that he had, and he jumped on him, slammed his head down on the counter, started beating on him, called the police!
“There is a law that says if you gonna accuse someone of stealing you could only catch them outside of the store, because then they walked off with the property in their hands. He had not left the store, he had money in his pocket enough to pay for what he was gonna buy - if he had no money in his pocket that would be evidence that he possibly was trying to steal. But he had money in his pocket, so when the police came they couldn’t charge him with anything. But then they told him, ‘You can’t ever come in this store again’ It was like!... He didn’t do anything, so why is he barred from coming in this store? We thought about suing them, suing the company, but then it became like something every day, something would happen all the time, so we would have like 20 lawsuits, if we tried to sue everybody who did something to him.
“He was telling me recently he was at a night club and some guy came up and was coming on to him sexually, and he told the guy to leave him alone and he got up from the bar and walked over to the dance floor and the guy came up behind him and reached around and grabbed him in the crouch! So he turned around and punched the guy in the face. It was an older white fellow that had done this to him. The bouncers came, grabbed him, took him outside, ruffed him up a bit and threw him out in the street and said, ‘You don’t ever come back to this club again!’ They didn’t throw the other guy out, they didn’t do anything to him when he’s grabbing somebody on their genitals. But he can’t go to that club anymore...
“So this is the kind of stuff he has to deal with every day. This is why a lot of young men turn to violence. They feel as they call it here, ‘Public enemy number one’. The police are always after you. I think the only reason - he got in trouble a couple of times, and I think the only reason that he didn’t turn into anything really, really negative is because he has a good family. His father and me and friends and folks sit down with him and talk to him and back him up. We don’t tell him that he should accept that, but at the same time you can’t fight in a negative way - that causes more things to happen to you. You have to learn to protect yourself, you have to learn your rights, and we do a lot to educate him about what his legal rights are. We talk to him emotionally, how does he feel to have this kind of things happen to you, try to get him to express those feelings, and most especial to express it creatively. So it comes out in his art and you see it there. He is a graffiti artist, he hasn’t been doing it recently because he took that experience and now he’s in art school, so he’s learning more and more about art. He didn’t just stay being a graffiti artist, but he started doing that as a way to express his frustration about how he’s been treated, especially by the police, and now he is in a very good place. He is in college, he’s not gonna drop out the way it looks right now, the way I did. I think he’ll be able to finish his education. I very much give him the sense that you never give up, you never give up, you always fight for what you want. Always fight for what you believe in and don’t let people kill your dreams, just don’t let them do that!”
“They want to?”
“That’s a good question. A complicated question. Part of when you live in a situation where you’re always having a fight. The black people in this country function in a lot of different ways. There are those who feel that you have to make it within the system: you finish your education, you get a good job, and you matriculate, you become part of white society. He had a black teacher of English and literature, and he said to her that he wanted to read more black authors and historians, and she said, ‘Why do you want to do that? There’s no real black culture, there’s no culture worth studying, and you can’t go back to Africa, and if you gonna make it in white culture, then you have to read and understand white culture. And that’s what I teach. I teach European and English literature and I don’t teach black literature. Because I don’t think black people should be concentrating on that.’ Okay? She was telling him right there we have no culture! Haha! I mean... That’s the kind of stuff he has to deal with. If he has any hope... He was studying film in school and they were giving a list of the directors whose work they were gonna work on. They were all white. He says to the professor, ‘What about black directors? What about Latino, Hispanic directors? What about other people? Why they have to be all white?’ And the professor said, ‘Because they never done anything worth studying. They haven’t done anything important enough for us to study in school.’
“He said that! Directly!”
“What?! Spike Lee at least!”
“Right. There’s lots of them. Haha! I mean... I gave him a book on black film makers and he took it to school. The professor said ‘None of these people did anything worth studying, They all studied white directors, so that’s why we’re giving that to you, that’s how they learned how to make film, from white directors, so we study those directors. We’re not gonna study them.’
“Okay. Tell me about positive things. You have a child with a white man. I assume it was a positive experience...”
“Oh, yes, yes. The important thing about being in the arts, being creative is that you can’t hate, because hatred does more to hurt you then it does to hurt the person that you hate. That’s what I always taught him: when you hate, you destroy yourself. And even though this country, this society is overwhelmingly racist, what you begin to understand when you step outside of the school system, they not only teach you in a limited way about your own culture but they teach you in a limited way about white culture as well. They don’t teach you about the good white folks who fought in the civil rights movement, who fought slavery, who continue to fight now. So not only did I had to learn about myself in order not to hate white people, I had to learn about culture from a white perspective that was positive. His father was very politically active, very positive person. You can hate white culture and see it very clearly for what it has done to suppress other cultures, without hating all white people. Because as soon as you began - like the Klan and the other right wing activities in this country - if you start to do exactly what they are doing back to them, you become like them, and in the end you just recreate the same negative atmosphere that they have created.
“One of the things I always say to Jojo in different ways is that the most powerful thing that you can do, the most revolutionary thing that you can do is to be a good, healthy and loving person. In the midst of everything that you have to deal with, to continue to be hopeful and to be loving. That’s revolutionary, because the people who try to take that away from you are then defeated, you don’t let the hatred take over your life. I have a lot of anger which I’m not ashamed or afraid to admit to anyone but I also have a tremendous amount of love in me as a person and I feel very fortunate. if I had my life to live over again, I would come back as myself haha! and I wouldn’t change very much because I learned a lot being who I am. I feel very blessed and I feel very lucky to have been able to do the work that I do and to be able to create the changes that I’ve been able to create through doing that work.”
“Now I’ll ask what I assume everybody asks you: What do you feel when you act, when you write, when you are creative?!”
“When I do that I’m operating out of the best part of myself. In order to be a good actress, one of the things that you have to be willing to do is to completely accept a person for who they are. Because, say I was going to read a poem of yours or an excerpt from your book. If I start to have an attitude of ,‘Oh, this white woman wrote this book and I don’t care, but I’ll read it,’ it wouldn’t come across very well because I have a negative attitude inside myself, I’m not accepting you as a sister artist so what I have to do in that moment is I have to clear up myself of all judgment.”
“How do you do that? I think you can’t do that unless you are a very loving person, you have to understand haha! Put it this way: you have to understand that there is no way you can fully understand anything, unless you accept it completely within yourself without judgment. If I have to play someone who has murdered someone - I would never do that, I am not a violent person anymore, haha! His whole life, Jojo is 22 years old, I’ve never hit him at all, I hardly ever yell at him. So if I had to play this person who was a murderer, what I have to do is let their heart become my heart, I have to let their lungs become my lungs, I have to let their mind become my mind, and I have to get inside of them and let them inside of me and let them speak the truth through me. Because I really believe, I really do, that every person, even the most angry, violent, hateful person, underneath is a good and redeemable human being, otherwise I would be dead right now if I didn’t really believe that we are all good. We all came out of some woman’s pelvis, some woman’s vagina and that is a beautiful thing. We were all born in beauty, and then - we can talk forever about it - but something goes wrong later on and we get twisted.
“But when you’re acting you wanna go back to the original person, before they became damaged, and the only way you can do that is to breathe their breath and think their thoughts and feel their feelings, and you have to do that without judgment. Now when the play is over and I step outside of the person, I might go, ‘God! That person is... What a tortured person!’ But I’m not thinking that while I’m doing it, because I can’t separate myself, I have to be true to that person, in that moment. So if I’m reading from your book I have to become you, I have to understand you, I have to feel you, I have to feel your breath, see with your eyes. If I’m doing that in my everyday work, then what happens for me it’s... that starts to become how I live my life, because my life is not separate from my work.
“So if I meet someone and, say, this person says, ‘I think all black people are stupid!’ Well, I can react to that and say, ‘Fine, you know I think you are stupid too!’ Well, I’m not gonna learn anything in that situation. I have to take a deep breath and look at that person and know something happened to cause that person to feel that way. And if I can listen long enough and breath enough, deeply enough to really hear their heart, they will eventually tell me what happened to cause them to feel that way and I might even say to that person ‘I’m sorry that happened to you, I’m really... sorry that happened to you. Because that happened to you, and because certain things had happened to me, that makes it very difficult for us to have a conversation. To really get to know each other. Unless we are willing to set that aside and say we weren’t born with that pain and hatred in us.’ Can we find a way to get back to the original person before they got damaged and imagine what life might have been if that thing had not happened. That’s what I have to do as an actress and as a writer.”
“Tell me about sexism.”
“Sexism? Haha! You get all the big ones, don’t you?... Again, when you are a woman of color, you experience it differently than a white woman... Which is not to say that white women don’t experience sexism, because I really believe they do. It’s just that for me the double thing of being black and being a woman gets a little heavier. I think all women experience sexism, and to a certain degree it’s not fair to split hairs in terms of trying to figure it out who has it better or worse, because when you got sexism, you got sexism. It needs to be fought and eliminated. Basically this is a very, very patriarchal culture and again looking at my upbringing, when I was a child I experienced this world of being separated and segregated from white people, but it was also a world of limited horizons in terms of being a woman, the careers that were opened for us.
“First and foremost you were supposed to get married, that was just it! You got married and you had children. If you didn’t want to do that, which I actually didn’t, I didn’t want to be married even when I was a teenager, because I had my career plans, haha! I wasn’t figuring about getting married, so right away everybody was saying to me, ‘Oh, you gonna be so unhappy, you’ve got to get married!’ So, first of all you got married. Then if you could manage being married and go into school and having a career, you could be a teacher, you could be a nurse, you could be a maid, a waitress, secretary. Like that... And even then it was like you will only do that if you were ugly and you couldn’t haha! get a man. Or you get a job, until your husband finished school or something. It was never a career that you could have for yourself. It was always you would work maybe to help buying your first house with your husband. It was a source of pride for men if the wife didn’t have to work, if she could stay home and take care of the children. It was like the blow to the ego if the woman had to get a job, because that meant you as a man couldn’t bring home the bacon, you couldn’t support your family and that’s why your poor wife has to go out and work.
“But when World War II happened most of the men, the young men especially went to fight the war and women started working. When the men came back, the women were like ‘We want to keep our jobs.’ Things began to open up, more and more women finished their education, more and more women started looking around and saying, ‘I want more than just a home and a family.’ And with the rise of birth control and reproductive rights women were saying ‘Maybe I don’t want ten children either, maybe I just want one, maybe I don’t want any.’
“That was a big change, and I saw that change happen. My mother worked, but she worked as a maid, and my father definitely felt guilty and less than a man because his wife had to work, which produced some violence in our family because as my mother started making more money and taking care of her own life, my father became violent towards her. One of the difficulties that I had growing up - as I mentioned I did well in school, I had these hopeful ideas - my father was angry towards me for being that way. He said, ‘Why do you want to do this? You should get married. You should... all these ideas you have, you never gonna have a husband. Because you can’t be a senator, you can’t be a lawyer and expect to have a husband!’ And he would actively try to hold me back and say ‘Don’t do that!’ He didn’t want me and my sister to go to college! He said, ‘You should get out of school and get married.’ Other girls did that: they got out of high school, got married and never finished their carriers. Started having children right away, ending up on welfare.
“So there was very, very little hope in terms of what you could do with your life until the seventies with the beginning of the women’s movement. That was really my generation that started that. We were the daughters of those women who went to work during the war. Our mothers encouraged us to make something more of ourselves then just thinking about getting married and having children. I have to say I have nothing against marriage and children and family. The family is so impacted in our culture and so many children do not grow up in stable homes and that causes great emotional damage to them. I’m a very strong family person, but I believe that everybody in the family should have the opportunity to fulfill themselves. Why should there be one person who is held back while she is supporting everyone else to go out and fulfill themselves? Why doesn’t the woman have the opportunity to fulfill herself? And this being the land of opportunity there ought to be that available for everyone.
“But this culture is very misoginistic, it hates women. We have to look at images of ourselves that have nothing to do with how we really are. That’s what we see in the movies, that what we see in TV, that’s what we see in commercials. We are reflected - all women, not just black women - in an unreal picture. Most movies that you see involve some violence towards women. You always see the serial killer who is raping and murdering women, people torturing women, striking women... And that kind of stuff it’s not accidental. It’s not accidental that if you see ten movies, eight of them would involve some sort of violence towards women. We see ourselves violated on a daily basis.
“Sex is sold in this society with everything: you see a car advertisement and you see a beautiful woman laying across the car. Because the implication is that she is a commodity, she is something that can be bought and sold, just like a car. Then for women of color, black women, Indian women, Latino women, if we are present at all in anything - that’s why I write plays, because if I didn’t write plays, there will be no positive images out there for me as a black woman. The only people who write positive images for women are women themselves. I think it’s almost impossible for a man to write a positive role for a woman to play, because of the sexist way the men are socialized in this country. We are sex objects to them.
“For me constantly what I deal with is people become very intimidated by me. Because I’m strong, because I’m articulate, because I’m intelligent and because I don’t back down. If a man says something that I feel is sexist, or racist I’m gonna stand up for myself, I’m gonna stand up for whoever that person is attacking, so than the image - and I had to fight with it within myself - is that I’m not a real woman. Because a real woman would be more docile, she would be quieter, she would be softer, and she’d be trying to please this man instead of attacking him. So then they think, ‘well she’s a very intimidating person,’ just for standing up for myself.
“I have to live with that all the time. People think because I’m a very strong person, because I express myself very well, that somehow that diminishes my sexuality, my attractiveness. And you grow up with that in this culture thinking ‘Well, I’m not gonna get a date if I’m too outspoken.’ haha! ‘I’d better wear the right clothes, I have to look sexy or men are not going to be attracted to me, they’re not gonna ask me out.’ You live with that all the time! And you have to decide. I say it to girls all the time - I work with a lot of girls who are teenagers - and I say ’You gonna have to make a decision about whether you will grow up trying to please men or you’ll grow up being yourself. The first thing you have to love is yourself. If you don’t love yourself nobody’s ever really going to love you. Be who you are, be yourself.’ But you can see them struggling with it. They want boyfriends, they want dates, they want to look like those women they see in the movies. And I say ‘not only do you not look like that, you’re more beautiful than that. You’re much more beautiful as you are than what you’re trying to be, that you see on television.’ I have to say that to girls all the time, all the time...
“I’ve always worked with children of all races and all classes. What’s really important to me, is that I form with those children positive relationships, because that helps to form their racial views. If they realize ‘Rebecca is black, and I love her,’ then that changes their attitude. If someone says ’I don’t know why you want to be around black people.’ In their mind they’re saying ’What do you mean? I love Rebecca, we play good games together, she tells great stories, we have good experiences.’
“Because it’s getting close to 30 years that I’ve been doing this work, I have a lot of people that I’ve known since they were two years old who are now in their twenties and thirties and they have children and then I start working with their children, so I’m on like second and third generations with some people. You have a very great impact on people’s lives.
“The lessons that I bring are about remaining creative and hopeful and positive in your live. When kids start having trouble, they bring them to me and say, ‘Work with my son’ or ‘work with my daughter’. I get them to write, I get them to dance, I get them to sing, I get them to express themselves. Whatever is happening in their lives, that’s causing the problem, begins to go away as their expression returns. Because as soon as you see someone having a problem in some kind of way, the first thing it goes is their creative expression. They start hiding those feelings. When they start work with me I tap into that and I bring that out of them again. When they start laughing, crying, and screaming - whatever they need to do to get that feeling out - then the parents can go to therapy or do whatever else they need to do to support them in getting over this problem. But the creative expression more than anything is helping them to deal with it.
“The very first thing is to deal with the body, because that’s where the soul lives. Our bodies are very constricted in this culture. Physical expression is very, very limited. I don’t know about Hungary specifically, but I know in other parts of the world for men to embrace, for men to kiss, for men to hold each other’s hands or be in physical contact is not so terribly unusual. Here if you see two men embracing you immediately think they’re gay.
“People are very nervous about physical contact. You go on the street, or on the bus and if you brush against someone they say ‘Oh, excuse me, excuse me’ like I’m sorry for touching you.’ I have friends who are lesbians who got beat up because they were kissing each other on the street. This culture is very physically oppressive. People don’t dance, people don’t sing. When people come in my workshop and I say ‘We’re gonna move our bodies, we’re gonna sing,’ they get terrified. First thing is ‘Oh, I can’t dance, I can’t sing, I can’t...’ ‘I can’t, I can’t I can’t,’ that’s always what I hear. ‘I can’t.’ Everybody say, even children, ‘I can’t do that.’
“The first thing is to get beyond that, and to say you were born with your body moving, you’re born expressing yourself with your voice, so why is it that when you get to a certain age you decide you can’t do that anymore? I do a lot of physical work with people: movement, breathing, massage, just to get them back in touch with their bodies. And then their voices too. One of the aspects of oppression, most especially for women, is the loss of voice. To not be able to express yourself, to not be able to speak up. God forbid that you should ask them to sing! And you hear people who are very oppressed in how they speak, very low, soft,” - she was murmuring as if imitating me. “Because a woman is not supposed to be loud, a woman is not supposed to talk a lot. So I get them to talk, about whatever is going on. Talk about your family, talk about...
“In this culture sexual abuse is rampant. Most women - and this is what I discovered with domestic violence: if you get five women in a room, four of them have even been physically or sexually violated, either incest within the family or raped, or some sort of hitting, punching, physical abuse. It’s the rule, not the exception. I have never been raped - my husband hit me once, but it was not sexual abuse. I am very unusual. Most women have had that happen to them here. And because of that in order to protect yourself, you withdraw within yourself and say ‘I can’t, I can’t, I can’t!’ Because a large part of the reason that you were attacked is because you were expressive as a child or as a woman. You walked down the street, in a nice dress or some short pants or maybe just because of who you are, because of how you looked, you were attacked. So you think, ‘I’m just not gonna be that way, I’m not gonna speak out, I’m not gonna express myself, I’m not gonna dance too wild at that night club, because a rapist could be in here.’ Women live with a lot of fear of being raped, of being sexually molested, of being harassed on the street.
“When you come in my workshop, you’re taking a very big risk to do again the very thing that you decided was the reason that you got assaulted. I try to get them to overcome that. Writing poetry becomes a really important part of the workshop - for both men and women, because men are repressed for very different reasons. They are repressed, because number one, you don’t want anybody to think that you’re gay, and number two, because it’s not all right for men to be emotional in this culture. You’re supposed to be controlled, dominant, you can’t appear weak.”
“Oh, you can not appear weak and it gets so bad that...”
“You cannot appear you’re in love, I assume?”
“Not too much!”
“Not too much! Haha!”
“Not too much! You have to control your woman. You can’t let a woman hurt you. That’s another reason that women get violated. The person I live with now is not Jojo’s father. There was a point at which he had an affair with another woman and I got extremely angry about it. I called her, I knew who the woman was, I called her and I called a lot of other women friends and we got together and I said, ‘I’m not gonna be treated this way! Why are you doing this with my lover?’ And once again I got attacked. His men friends said, ‘You better get her under control. Why are you letting her do that? She shouldn’t be so angry. You just slept with another woman, what is the big deal?’ I said ‘No, we either work this out or you get out!’ haha! ‘I’m not gonna be treated that way. If I can’t do what I have to do to take care of myself, and you don’t let me do that, then you get out, I don’t need you.’ And fortunately, he’s a very unusual man, he understood that and said, ‘I was wrong, I should not have done that, you go ahead and do what you need to take care of yourself and I will help you.’ But for the most part, men are told, ‘That woman is your property, those children are your property, so you have to keep them under control.’ So then that man is not gonna sing, that man is not gonna dance, that man is not gonna write poetry! Writing poetry is a very unmanly thing to do.
“I worked a lot in prisons. I worked with prisons for over twenty years. I’ve worked with people who are locked up for doing the most heinous things, who have murdered, raped... So you get a prisoner who’s murdered women, I’m gonna work with him and maybe he raped them and murdered them... I worked with men who have done that - so now here is this person and I’m saying ‘Dance! Sing! Write poetry, write about why you did what you did if you want to. Or you can write poetry about anything you want to write!’ This man has made his whole image on dominating and harming women, and here I am, asking, me, a woman, asking him to do the most threatening thing that he can possibly do. It blows his whole image as a man! But then when he starts doing it and he starts realizing the pain that he’s been feeling, the shame, the anger and that he can began to release that, he can began to look back in his life and I can ask him the question ‘Who stopped you from being this way? You’re beautiful, you’re creative! Who stopped you?’ And he can tell me that. He can tell me this teacher did this, or my father did this, or my mother did that and he can cry, he can finally cry about that and release that. Then he can begin to change his life. That to me is the greatest prove that what I do works, because if you can get people to express themselves and to look at what they did from a completely different perspective when they get out and they come back into the world, they not gonna be the same person what they were. We have documentation that the people who come through our programs, who learn to create, don’t come back to prison as often as those who don’t.”
“Rebecca, this is wonderful... So, if my boyfriend cheats me, I have the right to call that woman and my friends and discuss things?! What entitles me to do this? Who is the guilty one? The woman, or you, or the man?”
“Haha! good question.”
“You can do all this with dignity so that everybody is gaining, she, you, him? Because when I go home I might have to do this.”
“Haha! Well, yes, you should! You know, in this society things conspire to make you hate yourself. So here I am a woman, and I’m black and I’m poor and I got all these things so what I learned in order to survive and to thrive is that when something comes towards you that is put there to make you feel bad about yourself, you have to push it back right away! You can’t take it in. Here is this person that I love and he is sleeping with this other woman I should probably just curl up and pull the blanket over my head and say, ‘Oh, I’m ugly, I’m fat, I’m stupid, I’m old!’ haha! just like taking all this negative stuff - ‘and that’s why he’s sleeping with another woman. He doesn’t love me anymore, I’m not attractive, I’m not...’ things like that. No way!
“Let’s not even start that! So I knew right away in order not to internalize that as something as self-hatred, the first thing you learn is the person is doing that thing to you is the person who has the problem. I don’t have the problem, he has the problem, she has the problem and they’re both over there acting this out in such a way that they’ll be all right, but I’m the one I’ve got to raise the child, I’ve got to stay home, I’ve got to do this thing! So I said no! Let’s locate the problem where it is and then let’s take the secrecy off of it, let’s take the shame off of it, let’s bring it out, because this is not unique to us, this happens all the time, and if we can heal ourselves out in the open, then that will make it possible for other people to do that as well. So I just called everybody together and I said ‘I am not going to bear this burden alone.’ ”
“And did they come?”
“They did! You have to put a little incentive. They were basically scared not to. Then I told him, ‘You either come and you deal with it, or you can pick up your stuff in front of the house. You’re not gonna continue to be in my presence while this is going on. You either do it, or fine, you don’t want to do it, then get out today! Not next week, not next month, right now! Because I can’t afford for all the work that I’ve done to bring myself to the place that I am, I can’t afford to take a backwards step. If somebody says, ‘It was a really stupid thing you said,’ I can’t afford to take that in and say, ‘Oh! she thinks I’m stupid...’ ‘cause I worked too hard to turn that around. And once you changed that within yourself you can never go back, you can never accept that pain and that self-hatred that’s projected towards you, ever again.
“But you do it in an atmosphere of love, because I said to everybody that, when they came together, ‘We all gonna heal from this. We all gonna heal.’ And I said to her, ‘I don’t hate you, you got a problem. Why don’t you say what’s going on with you, that made you come in and disrupt my family. I have a child to raise. He’s participating in the raising of that child and you just disrupted that relationship and you did it out of self-interest. Why did you do that? You’re not feeling well in your life? Did you think you’re gonna get a little taste of my family?’ Haha! ‘She’s got a good family, so I think I’ll just take her man!’ Which in the end she said, ‘Yes, that’s why I did it. I wanted some of your life.’ And I said, ‘Sorry! This is mine! You go get your own!’ haha! But I did it in such a positive way... I wasn’t screaming at her, I wasn’t crying and yelling at everybody, I just said, ‘We have a problem.’
“And also some of my friends knew he was doing that and they didn’t tell me... so I had to deal with that too. You all call yourself my friends, and you saw this going on and you didn’t come and say to me, ‘Look, we need to talk.’ So what kind of friend are you? So, everybody got a little piece of it. By the time it was over, everybody came away with an understanding, and a lot of the women who came there, when those kinds of issues came up in their life, years afterwards they remembered that incident and said ‘I might need to do something like that myself, I need to take care of myself that way, the way Rebecca did.’”
Angela and Dottye came back from their brunch. We stopped.
I was thinking how good it would be not to say to myself, “Never mind, though he sleeps with everybody, he always comes back to me. He doesn’t know how much he cares for me... But one day...”

Today, looking back, I came a long, long way. Never again such creepy guy sucking the life out of me.

Well, here you have it: If you’d like to throw a bit of money my way to keep my endeavors going, and also enable me to spread the money to my various causes, speaking up against racism being one of them, I’d be grateful.

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