Updated: Jul 8, 2020
| This is the 185th story of Our Life Logs |
I was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the late 1950s. My parents were very alert people, writers who valued the fundamental rights of humans. The arts took the place of religion in our family, as striking as that may sound. My three older siblings and I were taught through dance, visual arts, the written word, theater, and music. While our family was dysfunctional in many, many ways, I will always be grateful to my parents who sparked a curiosity within me. From very early on, I saw the world through each lens they provided. That is, language, social justice, and the arts.
I feel it is most important to note that I was born a year before the Cuban Revolution. I was born the same year the Dalai Lama fled Tibet, and I was surrounded by the energy of the Women’s Movement. I came into the world the same year Michael Jackson and Madonna did—okay, maybe the pop singers aren’t so relevant—but this is all to say that I grew up when the world was going through extreme social changes. It was in the air I breathed. I remember tagging along with my teenage siblings as they went out, protesting the Vietnam War or marching during the Civil Rights Movement—I was only eight or nine at the time, with my tiny legs running along as I matched pace with my crew. Though my mother and father were quite distant in most parts of my life, it was my mother who helped me make my first petitions in grade school, as I wanted girls to be allowed to wear pants to school and to take shop class (and I am happy to add that both campaigns were a success).
I guess you could say that I was sharpened into an outspoken, independent girl with big dreams—a wonderful, dangerous trifecta.
By the time I was 16, my siblings had moved out (either in college or living with their own family), and my father lived away. I too left home at 16, as the support and wellbeing I needed was thrown off balance by living with my mother. I lived on my own in Princeton, NJ, where I was finishing high school, taking just a few clothes, my books, my records, my flute, and my survival instincts—all the necessities.
I stayed in New Jersey for about a year while my father kept a watchful, but far-off eye. At the time, I didn’t dwell on the fact that I was certainly on the “young side” of living alone, because I had music as my anchor. The flute was my life. On happy days, I practiced, on nerve-wracking days, I practiced, and I practiced every day in between.
I moved to the Lower East Side in New York City at age 17. It was less than two hours away and it wouldn’t stop calling my name. Briefly I lived with an older brother, but moved out before long. Again, I was too young to live alone in NYC, but I did it anyway. I was also blessed to have found many “surrogate parents”—all invariably African-American—who invited me into their families, supported my dreams, made sure I found my footing in the world, which ultimately led to my sense of connection, thanks to huge-hearted people who saw my true nature and never questioned my goodness.
I lived in New York City at a time when the people and events of its crumbling streets were not so safe, but I lived to tell the tale! Quickly after arriving, I was trained as a musical instrument restorer and technician of woodwind instruments and eventually opened up my own small business at age 18. This was my first interaction with jazz (which I was studying at JazzMobile and City College in Harlem). As for the musicians and their broken instruments, I got calls night and day from jazz musicians—some renowned, some striving-to-be—all needing an instrument re-corked or adjusted in some way. Along with their business, I dove into the realm of jazz, my flute as my weapon.
In the late 1970s, when I was 20 years old, I moved to Paris. There, I had the opportunity to meet and make music with musicians from West Africa, the French West Indies, and Brazil who made up the amazing cosmopolitan energy of Paris. Though racism was in full force, these people nonetheless held French ‘post-colonial’ passports and were intent on carving out musically and culturally rich lives. Music opened this amazing door for me to step into a brilliant community of artists, and I never looked back.
I took my flute repair business with me but supplemented this by working in a small, family owned music store, playing music for dance classes, modeling for life drawing classes, and performing in jazz clubs. I connected with musicians from all over and fell headfirst into a love of African and African Diaspora history and culture.
But even in Paris there is danger.
Paris is where I, as a 21-year-old, didn’t know just how high I had to keep up my guard. Paris is where I lost the last shred of my innocence when an acquaintance (whose home I had stopped in briefly) would not let me leave before he raped me at knifepoint.
In the years that followed, I determined that my stance was not going to take me into silence or hiding over the crime perpetrated against me. My assault happened during the 1970s, when the common practice of our society was to look away from this sort of evil. Like many other women before and after me, I was forced into finding my healing where I could, as the world at large was not providing the care I deserved. Though most people didn’t want to listen, I spoke up. The #MeToo movement was nowhere in sight at this time.
I refused to retreat, and arts activism became a guiding principle for the rest of my life. I composed music, I painted with each bold color on my palette, I built sculptures from clay with my bare hands, knowing full well I could speak about my trauma in this language. I would never lose art, and it would never abandon me. Therefore, I would survive. Most importantly, I knew in my heart that the noise I made about injustice and abuse would one day serve to help others. And I was right.
Over time, I healed. I lived in NYC and eventually travelled often to such places as Brazil, Bali, Mexico, and Spain. I was able to patch my psychic holes with art, relationships with like-minded people—and most importantly, with my father’s identical twin, Reginald Pollack, a renowned painter who pointed the way to my healing through encouraging my creativity, wherever it took me.
Through that long and painstaking process, a drive to help others was instilled in me using the arts as the vehicle. As life continued, I worked as a professional flutist, but fell much deeper in love with the cello. I led my own ensembles, performed with several groups, and even recorded two CDs of Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Brazilian jazz. I visited Guadeloupe seven times (as part of an on-going music project) and saw the effects of colonialism on a people and the ravages that the slave trade had left in its wake. There was such profound injustice, and I felt it. I wanted to respond by supporting the growth in others in any way I could. Life was calling me back to activism. Yet, this sense of a divide between my creative life and my drive to help others felt like a fracture that could never be melded into one.
One day, when I was about 50, I was sitting at my workbench working on a flute while CNN was buzzing on the TV. A spokesperson for the Polaris Project began speaking about human trafficking, modern day slavery. They said the problem was worse than ever. I set my tools on the counter with a gentle thud, my mouth hanging open.
This news was horrifying.
The person said that there were more people currently enslaved than at any other point in human history. I had spent decades reading about this topic, through history, literature, fiction, poetry, theater…but had understood the problem of slavery to be of the past. Not the present. Then, with CNN announcing there was going to be an upcoming seminar about the anti-trafficking movement, I grabbed the phone and signed up.