Archive for May 2011

Coming From America: The Mis-Education Of A White Washed Negro   2 comments

This is a conversation long overdue. The truth is; there are times I feel like I was white washed. Perhaps it is being here, in Barranquilla, which gives me clarity. Or the fact that my employment no longer demands a certain demeanor! Or maybe it is the death of my poet hero, Gil Scott-Heron, which gives me the courage! Or a bit of all three! Whatever the reason, I am now able to say that my cultural mis-education has undermined my relationship with myself and the rest of the world.

I recently went to a concert by H’sao. From Chad, their blend of African rhythms, hip hop beats; gospel like acapellas; and reggaeton riffs made strong my connection to the African diaspora. One of the women that introduced them, seemingly blanco (white), middle class and let’s say not in her twenties made soul moving references to the legacy of Africa’s impact on this region’s cultural development. I am embarrassed to admit that I had no frame of reference for a white person talking about the cultural legacy of the so-called “dark” continent, the image of Africa I was taught, with such reverent tones. And given Colombia’s history of trying to white wash its own black population, I was really thrown.

But this is Barranquilla. I am learning the flow on race and culture is different here. No wonder FIFA had Shakira (a Barranquillera) do its title song, Waka Waka (This Time for Africa). There are many people here who not only know, but believe, as the song says, Africa “you paved the way.” Coming from a skin color obsessed culture it is like emerging from under the veil, a term used by Dr. W.E. B. DuBois, Souls of Black Folks, to describe the psychosocial effects of oppression based on skin color.

This is a region where people describe themselves as negro, trigena, moreno, blanco or mexcla. The thing is though; these descriptions sometimes have more to do with their lineage than their skin color. The foundation is culture not color. Negro is a color, not a culture; a liberating lesson too long in the making for me! We tried, in the 60’s, to replace the pain caused by the skin color “veil” with slogans like “Black Is Beautiful”, which fell on its face like Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” antidrug campaign. The slogan was a valiant effort, made by well-meaning people. But it had no chance of raising the self-esteem of many generations oppressed. We could not, and still have not, eradicated the seriously flawed North American perspectives on skin color as a categorization for almost everything from target marketing to Sunday morning church services.

On another of my trips to the Museo de Caribe, that place is like therapy to me, I heard stories of the Wayuu, Wiwa, Ette Enaka, Tule, Palenquero and more; tribal decedent’s of African cultures, who seek to maintain their connections to the ways and values of their ancestors. Their stories make my spirit hungry. They talk about breaking away from the values of the conquistadors, slave traders and “the whites.” But there is no looking back with regret. No deficit thinking!  Instead, they exude a sense of character, pride and strength. Their values for natural remedies, traditional songs and language; and their reverence for the earth, our connections to each other and our ancestors make this region rich in a kind of cultural poetry.

It was great to hear my Spanish tutor, a 20 year old university student, talk about the tribes. Her knowledge of their names and their values, I could see, was a source of pride. When I was 20, I could not name even one of the tribes that spawned American culture and progress. What I missed was not the facts, the feeble memorization of who did what and when. What I missed was the value of each part’s contribution to the whole. Color obsession undermines the depth one feels when they are connected to the legacy that one’s ancestors have contributed to the world today.  At the concert, I quietly grieved my mis-education. I also danced, once again, to the music and poetry, celebrating my own journey away from deconstructivism and towards a greater sense of my connection to the world.

Posted May 30, 2011 by Wayne in Uncategorized

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Things I Have Learned About Making Friends In A New Place   3 comments

From Rand, West Virginia (shout out!) to Pittsburgh (the burgh), Poughkeepsie, Washington, D.C. (so nice I did it twice), Philadelphia (love Philly), Baltimore, Vancouver (WA – that was an adventure), Kansas City and now Barranquilla, Colombia, I have been blessed to make and have good friends. There are some things I have learned along the way that I would like to share.

Some people will want something from you. Make it OK.
Living in a new place means recreating one’s life. Whether it is getting a haircut or finding a doctor we all need to learn again how to get what we want and need. I add about 20% to my first year’s budget and call it a learning tax. It took me weeks to find a grocery store that has the stuff I like at reasonable prices. Add to that the cost of going from store to store and it all adds up. A long-time friend, who is building houses in Costa Rica, talks about the lessons he learned from his first projects. From finding a trustworthy attorney (no jokes here) to a supplier that will not steal back the materials they sold, the challenges can be plentiful. What is true in many parts of the world is also true here; how much you pay can depend on the relationships you have. Some people want more because I am North American and they think that I can afford it. No malice, just fact. The goal, of course, is to not get ripped off. Just as importantly, I do not want to be so guarded that I am turning people off. The people who want to do business with me are also potential contacts and the start of a network that I can leverage in the future. They are also potential social connections that may make my living here more enjoyable.

Some people will want to know YOU
Not everyone is looking to take advantage of the new guy/girl. I keep running into the belief that the streets, clubs and marriage agencies are full of young poor Latin women looking for older men with money to live the good life in the United States. This is a self-serving crock! Are there some? Yes, I know some. Many though, from my experience, are seeking what most of us want: respect, love, fidelity, commitment and friendship. Some would leave their family, not for the green card, but because they would go where their man wanted to live. Others have no desire to leave friends and family; bedrock to people in this culture. Some would leave if they thought it would better the opportunities for their child or children. Given my experiences of bias and racism in the United States, there is no way I am going to perpetuate a belief that this is a culture of people out to take advantage of foreigners. So yes, I am cautious. Just like I am in anyplace I do not know well. The truth is though most people here want the same things in their lives as I want in mine; to know people that care about and respect them.

People have lives. They were not waiting for me to show up
I hate to say it but I have discovered that I am not as wonderful or interesting as I thought. There were no marching bands waiting, or dancing girls, or opportunities waiting for me when I arrived here. People were already living their lives before I arrived. The Friday night poker game has had the same number of chairs for years. The “hottie” at the beach has family responsibilities. The people I want to meet have other priorities. My lonely Wednesday or Saturday nights will not cause people to call me, not even my new friends, with stuff to do. Developing friendships and business relationships is a slow process, requiring time and repetition. Going to the same gym; having a favorite restaurant; going to same market or mall; all give people a chance to become familiar with me, leading to more and more frequent conversations. I also tend to use the same taxi drivers when I need to get around. One day as we were passing the futbol stadium, Barranquilla had just beaten Bogota; the driver asked if I liked futbol. I said yes. And he invited me to join him for an upcoming match. Because we are getting to know each other, I have an opportunity to expand my circle of friends and enjoy good futbol at the same time.

Finally, be who you are
Have you ever been tempted to recreate yourself when you move or visit another place? I don’t mean like DiCaprio’s real life character in Catch Me If You Can. No, I mean stuff like telling people that you have more money than you really have. Or saying that you played high school baseball when you really only tried out! Or saying that you dated Brad Pitt when he was in high school! Little stuff just to make yourself more interesting! In a word: Don’t. Not because you can’t pull it off. I can easily say I am 50 instead of 60 (no brag just fact). And honestly, there is plenty of incentive in Colombia and Costa Rica to say I am younger than I really am. But why go there? For ego, sex, money or something else! Our souls know who we are. Saying we are something we are not puts our egos in control. Sooner or later our egos, the lie, always undermine the possibility of real friendships. Above all, have fun and enjoy your life. I have found that people will naturally gravitate to me when they feel I am enjoying myself, even if it is just having a cup of coffee. From there, all things are possible.

Posted May 23, 2011 by Wayne in Uncategorized

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Night Clubbing in Barranquilla   7 comments

Last Saturday night a friend took me to an 80’s theme club called Oro Puro (Pure Gold). After we got in, not knowing what to expect, I was surprised to see photos of such pop icons as Alf, Superman (Christopher Reeves – my favorite), Charlie and Farah, Popeye, Barry White, the Bee Gees and many others on the walls and table tops. The music was pumping. They had monitors playing videos of some of the greatest dance music of all time. Later in the evening, three pretty Colombianas, backed by a guy on keyboards looking like a cross between Kool (of Kool and the Gang fame) and Elton John (60 pounds ago), came on stage. They belted out, singing in perfect English, a medley of hits as well choreographed as their dance moves. I am in heaven, singing along with them like the school boy at heart I can be.

But wait. No, this cannot be right! I am in Barranquilla, Colombia. Where is the Latin music? And look folks, this is cute but the Bee Gees and Barry White don’t go together! Following Ray Parker’s “Ghostbusters” with Michael’s “Rock With You” is like having a bowl of Cocoa Puff’s and then eating French toast. And playing Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” right before Travolta’s Saturday Night Fever gyrations ignores all the rules. You don’t mix genres! This would never flow in the States.

But wait Wayne. Let go. Why are you here? What did you come out for? To be critical? Please! Breathe! And in that moment of letting go, for whatever reason, I remembered Marianne Williamson’s words, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not to serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

What I began to realize in this club with the 80’s theme was that I was getting in my own way. What was on my mind was my fitting in. Not just at the club but in Colombia. Yes, I am a foreigner. And yes, I am the only African American I have seen since I arrived here. These realities were feeding my insecurities and fear, becoming resistances to my own growth; pushing me away from my goals and my desires. I was in a safe place. In fact I have never felt in all my times in Colombia worry for my safety. People were laughing, talking and dancing. I needed to let go of the kind of energy that I have too often brought to places; seeking external validation of my light, my gifts and my being. I smiled. It must have been a big smile, as my friend asked me why I was smiling. I replied in my best Spanish that I was enjoying being here in this moment. She looked at me like I was crazy. It was harder to explain that I was letting go. And with letting go, I felt beneath the music the affirmation of the talent in the space; the love of dancing; and the love of 80’s music. Being able to share that love brought me closer than I have been in a very long time to living the life I am living because I am in love with living my life.

I came to Colombia and Latin America to liberate myself from some of the baggage I have carried for decades; the baggage that despite my career successes has inhibited me from manifesting the glory that I have within me. And, sure enough, as Marianne Williamson promised, once the light was released within me it was reflected back to me in the eyes and faces of those around me. What I was reminded of is that letting go, or detoxing as I have come to call it, will take time. I am waiting impatiently for that time to come. There is a lot more dancing to do.

Posted May 16, 2011 by Wayne in Uncategorized

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Connecting the Dots   2 comments

Recently I visited another of Colombia’s beaches, at the Prado Mar Hotel, just outside of Barranquilla. It is not a large beach, let’s say by American standards, but it is nice with well appreciated breezes, Miami like salas close to the water, a beautiful view, music to make you dance and the hotel serving whatever you wanted to drink or eat. What is different about Colombian beaches, at least to me, are the numbers of people walking around selling stuff. From jewelry to sunglasses to ceviche these entrepreneurs are constantly offering you something. At the Prado Mar they were not overly aggressive, as I have experienced at some beaches here. If you ignored them they soon went away. One of them, a dark woman, whose age it was hard to tell, asked me if I wanted a massage. I politely said no and continued talking with my friends. She then pointed to her skin saying that we were the same color. The message was therefore I should buy a massage from her because we are the same color. She has beautiful dark chocolate skin. A color I would have been teased, even more than I was, for back in the mid 1960’s at DuPont High School. In my mind, I was saying this is great marketing. Appeal to my sense of our common struggle.

I also thought of my recent visit to the Museo del Caribe, a place I loved for the way it wove the area’s history around cultural stories about where people came from and how they contributed to the development of this part of the world. What struck me most about the museum was the way they depicted slavery and the slave trade. There were no stories of black folk who were always trying to escape hard work to go dance, laugh and sing. There was a telling of the spirit of survival and rebellion. It is for this reason that for a minute the museum made me sad. There was no memorization of who freed the slaves. This was a museum that told stories of the people, their maintenance of culture, their heritage and their spiritual connections, despite the realities of slavery and the slave trade.

One of the messages delivered by the museum is how the confluence of Caribbean, European, African and Indigenous cultures has strengthened the region’s identity. Wow was this refreshing. The museum is alive, it is interactive and it is high tech. It is not a collection of objects. It is a museum of living culture brought alive by the stories of the land, the life that lives here and the cultures that thrived despite the conditions of their arrival. There is a celebration of the things that I was taught to undervalue.

I remembered seeing a movie at the museum showing scenes from one of the Carnavales de Barranquilla. People dressed like clowns in black face, afro wigs, big red painted lips and huge bugging out white eyes were dancing in the street. Remembering the degrading depictions of Black people, my heart was offended. So I asked, what is up with this. I was told that this was a way of saying look, oppressors and conquistadors; this is what you thought of us. Look at us now. We are here. We have survived. We have lived and are doing well.

The museum promises to strengthen visitor’s “sense of belonging, esteem and appreciation of heritage, a place of inspiration and reflection, education and celebration.” For me it did that and more. It made my heart appreciate a reality that I did not grow up with. It lifted my spirits. And though I acknowledged that the woman trying to sell me a massage was my sister by blood, her marketing strategy did not make me buy the massage.

Posted May 9, 2011 by Wayne in Uncategorized

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My Latin Havens   1 comment

Over the past few years, I have come to love being in Latin America.  My soul feels more tranquil, my life in greater balance and in general I feel healthier when I am here.  Like many of my former colleagues blood pressure medicine and an assortment of stress related conditions had become an everyday part of my life.  One of the greatest stressors for me has been the emotional, spiritual and psychological toll that racism takes on one’s life.  As W.E.B. DuBois underscored in The Souls of Black Folk, racism strikes at the very core of the self.  And former Secretary of State Dr. Condoleza Rice got it right when she called the denial of Black Americans opportunities given to whites when the country was founded a national “birth defect.”  There remain deep scars and current realities that undermine any sense of being able to be healthy.  Being in Latin America helps me to take that weight off my shoulders, relax, regain my balance and breathe.

Costa Rica and Colombia are the two countries that I have come to love the most, and know the best.   Costa Rica means rich coast.  And it is.  From the Palo Verde National Park, to the beaches of Guanacaste, to Tabacon’s hot springs, Costa Rica is a nature lover’s paradise.  San Jose, the capital, where the vast majority of the country’s 4.5 million people live, offers great restaurants, clubs, art and culture.  It is estimated that over 1.5 million people visit Costa Rica each year.  Some come for dental work, cosmetic surgeries and more complicated procedures because of the lower cost for quality of health care.  Costa Rica’s population is one of the most diverse in Latin America.  About thirty years ago, the country enacted laws that made it very easy for foreign investors and retirees to move there.  Now there are between 70,000 and 100,000 North Americans living in Costa Rica.  It is estimated that there are between 500,000 and one million Nicaraguans living there, as well as many Colombians, Europeans and a growing Chinese population.  A very stable government, a strong middle class and a lower cost of living makes Costa Rica very attractive to many, me included.

Though it is a reality that Colombia is still dealing with its drug and violence ridden image, I love this country.  Also to some of my friends the country’s ill-treatment of its indigenous, mostly black, population is another reason to stay away.  Thus far I have visited Medellin, Bogota, Manizales, Pereira, Risaralda, Barranquilla, Santa Marta, Cartagena and several small towns in the cafeteria region.  I have never felt unsafe.  Yes, I have seen roving patrols and been stopped randomly at military check points.  They are serious about changing the country and its image.  This is not window dressing.  They are serious.  Colombia has a growing economy and a stable forward thinking government that has fought hard to change the country for the better.  Colombia is open for business and tourism.  Their slogan “Colombia: The Only Risk Is Wanting To Stay” is spot on.  hat I have found are vistas, of countryside, mountains, beaches and people who took my breath away.  Their racial legacy also celebrates the maintenance of the rich culture the slave trade brought the country and the survival of their spirits.  The Atlantico region, which includes Barranquilla, Cartagena and Santa Marta is one of the most diverse, colorful and fun-loving places I have ever been.

After thirty years in higher education, seven as college president, writing and living in Latin America are now my goals.  This is, for me, is an experiential pathway to a more enlightened, healthy balanced self.  Since April 1, I have been in Barranquilla, Colombia.  I am looking at how I can make living here work.  Buy some property, figure out how to make some money and settle down.  I will work on how I can also do some stuff Costa Rica, to see friends or do some business there also.  Stay tuned!

Posted May 5, 2011 by Wayne in Uncategorized

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