Monthly Archives: July 2011

Worldview shifts through songs

Ysaye Barnwell, from Sweet Honey In The Rock, led thirty voices and hearts this week on an incredible cultural journey through song. As courageous as Sojourner Truth, she led her Building A Vocal Community Workshop back in time to the shores of Mother Africa, opening eyes up to the rich and diverse cultures and worldviews of the continent.

“Put your notebooks away.” Ysaye told us, “This week you will be studying in the oral tradition. . .which is what the African-American worldview is founded on.” And then she launched into song, demanding responses to her calls, and our bodies sprung awake, reading her face, voice, and expressions for clues.

Polyrhythms rolled through the rooms, and echoed into our bodies, slowly unwinding western-European cultural trainings, boggling minds, and triggering new movement patterns.

The five African-American women in the class added their knowledge of the African Diaspora proudly and shyly. One young woman clarified that “they (they slave ship captains) did not go to Africa to get slaves. They went to get Africans to enslave.” This small semantical shift reminds us that no human, or animal, or any being is inherently a slave. One being enslaves another.

It was small, yet profound statements like this that stunned and transformed me throughout the week. Early African-American spirituals are not Christian songs, Ysaye told us, and all at once, like a missing puzzle piece slipped into place, I saw it. The early spirituals are the songs of people coming from all over Africa, speaking many different languages, forbidden to practice their own religions, speaking through English and metaphor to communicate and express the challenges of living as slaves in America.

The call and response structure of communication threads its way through African-American folktales and early narratives, through sermons, and song. It underlies dialogue and thought process. As a writer, this understanding radically alters my work. Information flows differently through a scene, bouncing from character to character, interjecting and inserting thoughts from many different points of view. This is different from a singular, linear, logical narrative stream from one individual.

Lala fans can look forward to some rewrites and revisions, and of course, the new plays will reflect this powerful worldview shift. As the week rolls on, the ripples of my experience with Ysaye and the Vocal Community Workshop will reveal themselves. Already, Ysaye’s teachings on the Blues and the lone traveler are affecting my understanding of Lala’s journey in search of inner freedom.

Stay tuned. . . Rivera Sun


Smile. . .Smile. . .Smile. . .Hesitate.

For three weeks I have been watching my smile practice its acrobatics. It jumps across my face when I pass someone I know. It slowly stretches toward a stranger. Leaps up for a mom and her rascally kids. Turns somersaults for our elders. Then, just as it’s running for a triple handspring backflip, it hesitates and freezes.

Right there, I find my discrimination. It may be a tough looking man on a darker night when I’m walking alone. It may be an annoying woman from out of town. Maybe a slightly crazy seeming homeless person. The instant my smile hesitates, I’ve found the person I inwardly discriminate against.

So what do I do?  What any decent gymnast does:

Step back. Take a deep breathe. Release fear. And try again. Smile. Sometimes I don’t quite make it and a half smile twitches across my lips. I swallow fear and use spiritual wisdom to gain perspective before trying again.

“We are all one,” we new-age folks are fond of saying. “We are all brothers and sisters,” other faiths proclaim. And yet, who frowns at their brother as they pass on the street? Who ignores his own self? When we look in the mirror, don’t we meet our own eyes? The simple practice of smiling at each and every person I pass on the street has become my own version of ‘walking my talk’. And it is more ever-present and challenging than a week-long fast or all-day meditation.

But it’s working. New eyes meet mine. Unexpected, surprised smiles unfurl in reply to my own. One woman told me, “I always thought Santa Cruz was an unfriendly place. I’ll have to change that opinion now.” We can change the world. One smile at a time.

Stayed tuned. . .coming up next:  a week of studying with Sweet Honey In the Rock’s Ysaye Barnwell at Esalen.

Rivera Sun

One smile. . .one world. . .one people.

On a public stage, an African-American man urged minorities to build solidarity together in preparation for the upcoming elections through a simple method: smile at each other. A smile signals friendship, acceptance, and openness to connection. Hispanics and African-Americans, particularly, can use the smile as gesture of unity between them. This will be crucial, he said, as the empowered white politicos strive to divide minorities.

Hmm. . .my red eyebrows furrowed, white skin brow creased in thought, then these hazel eyes popped open and. . .I smiled. I smiled at the first person I saw, the woman with deep chocolate skin next to me. Then I smiled at the lighter brown kid next to her. Then the half-Asian, half-African man I walked by. Then a white lady. Then a Hispanic family. Then a homeless man. And on and on. I just smiled equally at every person I passed on my walk home. And I have not stopped smiling since.

It is a practice in equality. “We hold these truth to be self-evident, that all men (and women) are created equal.” It’s our American credo, a standard of ideology that we must practice and contemplate each day to meet. If all are equal, all deserve my respect. A smile and a nod as we pass each other on the street sends the message, “I see you. You are welcome here. You are my equal. And I am yours.”

Smilng is not just for minorites.  It is for all of us to build unity.   It is a practice so simple, so common, that anyone of any gender, age, or race can engage in it. A societal transformational tool that no one can sell or steal, only give. A freedom of expression that lies within your power every day. . .all day.

. . .and a practice that brings you face to face with your own discrimination.

(To be continued.) Rivera Sun Cook

The blessing of priviledge. . .and how to use it on behalf of all beings.

photo by Dawn Hayes


Everyday privileges. . .

In the fury over our impinged upon ‘rights’, I pause in a moment’s reflection on my incredible privileges.  To be privileged is an honor, a wonderful opportunity in the world of disempowerment and discrimination, inequity, and injustice.  As I meet these heart-breakers square in the face as a conscious citizen, the breadth and weight of my privileges becomes apparent. Some simple privileges I enjoy:

  • Free library access.  Books at home.  Internet.
  • Organic, pesticide free food.
  • A full-scholarship private college education.
  • Parents who loved me and never beat me.
  • Self-expression.
  • Unlimited long-distance telephone service.
  • A green mossy fern and stone garden outside my window.
  • Pu-erh tea.

The word “PRIVILEGE” evokes in me (and many of us) a hazy concept of white, wealthy elite, with multiple houses, political connections, tennis courts and Ivy League schools.  And yet, our every day privileges abound, and naming them, counting them, and acknowledging them with gratitude helps me see the phenomenal capacity at my fingertips for using these gift in service of all of humanity.  Some ways I use my privilege to help all beings:

  • Staying healthy, awake and alert.
  • Becoming informed of current events and issues.
  • Voting with the dollars that I earn
  • Giving a ten percent tithe to charity of all income.
  • Listening to friends deeply and creatively offering solutions.
  • Volunteering my extra time.
  • Smiling at each and every human being to convey how welcome they are in our community.

Health, financial stability, peace of mind, quality food, education, and self-expression are all privileges not to be taken for granted.  They are not guaranteed as part of every human’s life experience (unfortunately) and those of us who enjoy these privileges have a lot to offer to all of our community.  Today I give thanks for the small everyday actions that I can do to help our world.

Rivera Sun