Kalima Young: My Origins as a Retcon

Activist, advocate, filmmaker, and Unsung Baltimorean emerita Kalima Young told the following story at the debut of Full Circle Storytelling on December 13, 2011. It’s a funny and incisive illustration of the different ways we talk about ourselves to others.

Also, she is a superhero.

- Quev


My Origins as a Retcon

superman bling logoRetcon- Retroactive Continuity
Definition: Alteration of previously established facts to fit a new narrative.

My name is Kalima Young and I am 36 years old. I was born in New Haven, Connecticut and raised by a single mother of four in West Baltimore. I went to Baltimore City Public Schools. I graduated from Goucher College and Towson University. I work at MICA.

That is my origin, truncated but true nonetheless. Here are my origins as a retcon.

My name is Kal-El Ma. Anyone who is friends with me on Facebook knows this. I am a daughter from the House of El. My home planet, Krypton was destroyed and I, along with my brother and cousin were sent from Krypton to earth. While my brother, Kal-El was raised in Smallville, Kansas by a farmer and his wife, I was raised in West Baltimore by a single mother of four. …Bla Bla Blah…you have all heard the rest.

My origins as a black woman, lesbian, professor, activist, superhero, and filmmaker changes depending on the company I keep. I am a professional retconner.

I’m going to give you three scenarios of my Retcon in action.

Scenario 1: Courting a fellow community activist for potential collaboration

Oh, you want to know about me? Well, I grew up in West Baltimore. Yeah, Walbrook Junction. Yes- there is a lot of drug dealing in that community. We lived on Baker Street, near the 8th Branch library in an end unit row house. Crack heads and their dealers used to line up on the side of our house everyday for their drugs and my mother would boil pots of water and throw them out the window onto the drug addicts. They’d scatter like roaches. It was hilarious. What was that? Yeah, we’ve got a lot of work to do to improve this city. Oh- you do want to work together. Great.

The conversation ends and I’ve established my street cred.

Now for the RETCON.

Scenario 2: Attending a conference

Oh, you want know about me? Well, I grew up in Baltimore but I’ve lived in other places for short periods of time because of one of my previous jobs. Yes, but Baltimore isn’t that bad. Don’t believe The Wire. You can walk down the street without being accosted. Sure, yes, drug addiction is tragic but many blue collar cities suffer from similar socio-economic challenges. We must work on structural interventions to address the intersections of race, poverty and class that plague the city. Oh- you have paper idea? Sure, let’s talk about it. Great.

Scenario 3: Surviving a Zombie Attack

Hand me the gun. Don’t just stand there whining. Where you’d grow up? Montgomery County? I grew up on the Westside (RELOAD). What? Stop crying. It’s coming right at you. BLAM BLAM. Stop crying. A little zombie blood splatter on your face is nothing. Watch your back. BLAM. Shit, these zombies are nothing. My mom used to throw boiling water on hordes of crack heads when I was kid. What? WATCH OUT! BLAM. We make a good team.

All three of these scenarios are true.

A Retcon isn’t a lie. It’s not being lazy. It’s being strategic about how you frame your life in the context of the world you are playing in. Many people get tired of having to Retcon. Audre Lorde sums up this pathos in the following quote: “I find I am constantly being encouraged to pluck out some one aspect of myself and present this as the meaningful whole, eclipsing or denying the other parts of self.”

Yeah, sometimes it gets tiring. Playing the oppression game…my blackness, trumps my gayness trumps my fatness trumps my super hero origins. It’s useless to fight the Retcon.

Many people get angry when you do the Retcon. They look at you and they look at your resume or your work and they’ve summed you up. Captured your mythos. Canonized your life history through their lens.

But I’ve found that when I control my Retcon, no one can claim my story but me. He who controls the spice, controls the universe.

Up Up and Away….

Jumping into the dust devil

My dad once told me the story of how, when they were kids, he and his older brother were smashing light bulbs on the ground, just to hear the distinctive shattering noise that is unique to a breaking bulb. Two small shards of broken glass flew back and embedded themselves on either side of his brother’s trachea. My dad beat feet back to the house, yelling for help. When the doctor removed the slivers of glass from my uncle’s neck, he told the boy’s parents that he was lucky to be alive.

Both my father and his brother were beaten following the incident, ostensibly for causing mischief, but more likely it was simply for frightening and inconveniencing my grandparents.

My dad told me another story, a short one about how he once jumped into a big dust devil and got all cut up by a maelstrom of twigs, stones, and other whirling debris. When I asked him what possessed him to do something so dumb-headed, he had to ponder for a bit before replying.

Farm land in Texas

Farm land in Texas panhandle near Amarillo, Texas. Santa Fe R.R. trip (LOC)

“I guess I just thought it looked beautiful,” he said.

I’ve always loved those stories, for a variety of reasons. For one thing, my father rarely spoke of his upbringing, so it was always a treat to get these glimpses of the child he had been. Whenever he would recount stories like these, his voice would slide effortlessly back into the West Texas twang he spent so many years and miles trying to eradicate.

But what I like most about them is their economy. In a few spare phrases they conjure the dreary flatness of the panhandle; the sound of glass shattering against black, tarry asphalt; the casual, almost capricious way that a boring afternoon can turn into a nightmare of blood and fear and pain; the feeling of one’s face being pelted by small rocks; and the restless, angry heart of a boy who is so eager to escape the abuse and tedium of his home that he plunges headlong into a miniature tornado.

That sort of succinctness eludes me. My father was a garrulous man, but his words were usually carefully chosen, with little of the verbosity and few of the “ums” and “ahs” that infect my own speech. His writing, on the rare occasions when he would actually sit down to pen a letter, was similarly precise, imbued with a bone-dry and self-deprecating wit.

My dad’s storytelling style was heavily colored by his cynicism. His heroes in life and letters were Mark Twain, who elevated cigar-gnawing, squint-eyed grumbling to the realms of high literature; and fellow dust-bowler Will Rogers, who maintained that “everything is funny, as long as it’s happening to somebody else.” One of my father’s own oft-repeated aphorisms was, “people are great one-on-one; in groups, they’re monstrous.”

While I do not share my father’s misanthropy, I did inherit his skepticism and his predilection for sarcasm and sardonic humor – what my generation would call snark. Those traits have landed me in trouble on more than one occasion.

I also inherited my father’s fascination with the absurd, the dark, and the sublime. In my own way, I have smashed light bulbs just to hear the sound they make, and I have have dived into dust-devils of many kinds.

I lost my father nearly twenty years ago to liquor, depression, bitterness, and self-loathing. His legacy to me was a box full of memories – some brilliant, some poisonous; the faint residue of a West Texas twang that occasionally creeps into my voice; and an incandescent passion for good stories.

Honoring the dead, caring for the living

homeless persons memorial day flyerAs I approached the lectern to recite the names of the dead, I felt like a fraud.

But that’s not important.

What’s important is that last year, 114 homeless or formerly homeless people died in Baltimore. Each year on the winter solstice – the longest night of the year – Healthcare for the Homeless (HCH) and other advocates organize a vigil to read the names of the men and women who passed away during the previous 12 months. The event is held in conjunction with National Homeless Persons Memorial Day, which was established in 1990 to draw attention to the continuing problem of homelessness in America.

For the past few years, Baltimore’s observance has been held at the small outdoor amphitheater in the Inner Harbor, between the Pratt Street and Light Street shopping pavillions and just behind the light-bedecked brilliance of “Santa’s Workshop.” Passing joggers and holiday shoppers dart furtive glances at the crowd gathered for the vigil and at the candles flickering from among row upon row of shoes, each pair intended to commemorate a life, a person, a name.

After opening remarks and invocations by clergy from different faith traditions, speakers take turns reading from a list of names. After each name is read, participants respond, “we will remember.” Last night’s readers included the head of the city’s office of homeless services, an HCH board member, and two protestant ministers. My presence at the lectern was due solely to the fact that vigil organizers were looking for additional readers from the crowd, so I volunteered.

As soon as I began reciting the names, I experienced a sense of shame. I didn’t know any of the people on the list. I had not tended to their medical needs, shared a meal with them, listened to their stories, gotten them jobs, helped them find housing, or heard them laugh. Although I work in the philanthropy field and I make contributions to HCH every year, my work is at a distant remove from the realities that my homeless neighbors face every day.

Reading from that list of names, I felt as if I had transgressed into someone else’s moment of bereavement by wandering into the wrong room at a funeral home. What right did I have to claim any part of the loss experienced by the friends, relatives, social workers, and others whose lives had been touched by the people being commemorated? Instead of just showing up post facto, candle in hand, why had I not done more to prevent the deaths or ease the passing of the women and men on the list?

Rev. Andrew Foster Connors, pastor of Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church, said as much when he spoke of the complicity we all bear for not making room for the Holy Family at the inn, just as we fail to make room for homeless people in our institutions, budgets, and policies. He urged all of us present at the vigil – city council members, public agency heads, nonprofit leaders, and residents of Baltimore – to not just commemorate the dead, but reach out to the living who are still with us and still in need.

Rev. Connors was followed by Rabbi Martin Siegel, who offered a meditation on the nature of names themselves, explaining that in the Jewish tradition each of us bears three names: the one we are born with, the one we are known by in life, and the one we leave behind when we die. “Some people don’t leave much of a name behind,” he said. “It is most blessed [when] we remember those who did not leave behind much of a name.”

He went on to say that in Judaism, the word HaShem, which simply means, ‘the Name,’ is “the most powerful and understandable name of God,” That name resides in every person and therefore is “the name that really matters.”

“Let us go from this place ,” urged Rabbi Siegel, “and resolve that we will look for the Holy Name in every human being.”

Then the speakers came forward to read the names of the dead. The recitation created a circle of reverent silence within the amphitheater. That pool of stillness was battered by the rush hour sounds of the city, which had never seemed so deafening. I found myself growing increasingly irritated at the incessant noise, at the horns and the car alarms and the sirens and the stereos and the raised voices of people on the street. I wanted to tell them to be quiet, to have some respect, to give the dead just this one small moment of peace and quiet.

And then I realized that even those commodities are in short supply among homeless people. For someone who is sleeping on the street, every moment brings an overwhelming barrage of sensory stimuli, from the sounds of traffic to the air temperature to constant threat of physical harm. How exhausting that must be.

As the recitation of the names continued, interspersed with vignettes of this person or that person, I suddenly understood that bearing witness involves more than commemorating those who have died. In the very act of remembering their names, we can be inspired to do more for those who are still in our midst.

Seen in that light, the shame I described earlier doesn’t matter. What matters is that we pay tribute to the dead by taking care of the living. In serving and advocating for our neighbors who are in need, in looking them in the eye and treating them with dignity and respect, we honor the memories of our brothers and sisters who have gone.

While no single person can end poverty or solve any of the other deep, structural problems that lead to homelessness, there is so much that each of us can do in addition to remembering the dead. The National Coalition for the Homeless has quite an extensive list of ways to help, in fact.

I have attended the Homeless Persons Memorial Day vigil for several years now, and with each passing winter I am increasingly convinced that bearing witness is not about shame, or regret, or good intentions, or mourning the fallen. Bearing witness is about allowing the dead to become our teachers and our inspiration to do more for the living.

Among the names that were recited last night was that of Steven McGuire. In the program notes read by Rev. Kathleen Cheyney of St. John’s United Methodist Church, we learned that “Mr. McGuire was a storyteller. He found pleasure in telling stories of his life to others and teaching others lessons learned. He was a man who cared more for others than for himself, and was willing to lend a helping hand to anyone in need.”

I can only hope that, when my time comes, someone will say the same about me.

Bmore Historic

I’m looking forward to this Friday’s Bmore Historicunconference,” a daylong, participant-led series of conversations about “public history, historic preservation, and community development.”

I’ve proposed a session on neighborhood vibrancy, just as a way of getting people’s thoughts about what that means and how to make it happen.

Other proposed sessions include “Instant Living History,” “Place-Based Local History,” “Mapping Place: Experiments in Digital and Spatial Humanities.”

I have no idea what that last one means. But it sounds pretty wicked.