Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Poetic Powwows

Yo! Check out who’s in the Hip Hapa Homeez house this week. None other than Asani Winfrey Charles--who may or may not be related to Your Hip Hapa. I first met Asani when she lived in Long Beach, and I in Santa Monica. Contacting me to inquire whether we might be kin to each other (and Oprah), Asani emailed me a lengthy story about the Winfrey clan. Somewhere in our conversation, we discovered that we both knew the rapper Miwa Lyric. Eventually, the three of us met for dinner and have been in each other’s worlds ever since. That’s Asani in the photos, above and below.

A poet, a high school English teacher, a wife and a mother, Asani defines her writing style as “eclectically narrative”. Her childhood, steeped in multiculturalism, is reflected in her work which has been published in Ahani: Indigenous American Poetry, Yellow Medicine Review, and the forthcoming I Was Indian, edited by Susan DeerCloud.

Asani has also released a spoken word CD called Word Songs for Grandmas. Darrell Blackbear, Sr. of The Bear Claw Singers joins her on several pieces, which they refer to as recording "poetry over powwow".

When she’s not teaching or writing, Asani dances Southern Women's Cloth at powwows. A resident of Texas, her dream is to buy an RV and travel the powwow trail from coast to coast with her family.

View Asani’s links below, then check out what she has to say in the Q&A following:

Q: How did a nice mixed-race girl like you end up being a poetess?

A: I was exposed to poetry at a very young age. I remember my mother reading me classic fairy tales and Nikki Giovanni (as early as 6 or 7 years-old) before I went to bed. The cover of Grimm's Fairy Tales scared me so I would ask her to read Nikki instead. Then, one day in second grade, we were asked to write a poem about spring. I did, and my mother still brags about my first piece, The Trees Are Here.

Q: What are your parents’ ethnicities, and what did each teach you about their cultures?

A: Both of my parents are “redblack” mixedbloods with a little extra for flavor. My mother is Choctaw, black and Louisiana French, and my father is Chickasaw, black and English. I guess I was raised black, but our concept of blackness was quite different than most families, I think. Both parents grew up outside of Oklahoma, so their parents infused a lot of Indian ways in their rearing without saying it was so. My maternal grandmother told me our ancestors were Indian as well as black, but nothing else was said (outside of one of our matriarchal aunts who I took for being senile). I saw my maternal great grandmother, my only full African roots, as the cornerstone of the family and that was that. My father's mother was very quiet about her people and didn't share anything with me until I was an adult.

Q: How much does your poetry reflect your multiracial heritage?

A: I believe poetry is life in print, so my poetry reflects my life and all its facets. I see multiple ideas and themes running through my work. Multiracialism or multiculturalism appears a lot, as well as politics and verses about nature.

Q: How do your three children identify racially?

A: My three children are interesting. They share the same father, my husband, but he too comes from more than one root, so all three kids are unique in coloring and appearance. They each identify as both Indian and black, but are realistic about how society perceives them.

Q: As both a mother and a teacher, how do you present multiracial issues to your classroom and at home?

A: My kids are raised to be culturally aware of their heritages and of others. They appreciate diversity and are taught to never marginalize cultures. My students are not that fortunate, so I am a huge proponent of multicultural education. For many students, I am the first Indian they've ever met, so I use the classroom to dispel myths and lies, and incorporate multicultural literature to broaden students' knowledge about people from different cultural perspectives.

Q: What do you think is the biggest misunderstanding between African Americans and Native Americans?

A: The biggest misunderstanding is also the saddest, and that is that too many African Americans have little or no knowledge of American Indians at all. One would think that with our marginalized history, African Americans would appreciate Indians' shared struggles, but the knowledge just isn't there, so the oppressed oppress others. About African Americans, many American Indians assume blacks simply have their hands out like whites or white "wannabees". Some of that assumption is based on true experiences, but it is not the norm. Indians don't realize that African Americans have had family histories erased due to slavery, so often blacks are not looking for tribal benefits but a real sense of family history.

Q: How long have you been dancing at powwows? Personally, I’ve attended them in California, Hawai’i and Washington State so I’m curious to know if you have a favorite.

A: I have been dancing about 13 years now. I now realize I was spoiled in California. Across Indian Country, powwow season runs from March to mid-September, but dances in Southern California are pretty consistent each weekend and close by. North Texas is a different story. We have a few local powwows, but the rest are a bit of a drive. As for favorites, I have to go with Cal State Long Beach and my alma mater, UCLA.

Thank you, Asani for sharing your fascinating family history and love for culture. If you’re a Hip Hapa Homee with an interesting tale, hollah at

Meanwhile, here’s an article and a YouTube clip about a Chinese African American woman living in Shanghai who some Chinese claim shouldn’t be considered Chinese at all even though she was born and raised in China:

I also read a piece in Parade Magazine last weekend about Caucasian actor Pernell Roberts who rose to fame as the eldest son of Ben Cartwright on the TV series Bonanza. He was the fearless son, one of three, who always dressed in black. Well, unbeknownst to Your Hip Hapa, Roberts was also a civil rights activist who marched from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. Reportedly, he left the show because he felt NBC was racist for allowing white actors to play minority characters--like Marlo Thomas acting as a Chinese woman. Actor Victor Sen Yung played Hop Sing, the Cartwright’s loyal Chinese cook, but I didn’t read anything specific about Roberts’ feelings over Yung’s subservient role probably because it was a reality for Chinese during that time in the West. For Roberts, the highly rated Bonanza was, well, a bonanza. So, for him to walk away over the way people of color were portrayed was monumental. Here’s a shout-out to Pernell Roberts!

Finally to Hip Hapa Homeez’ Number One Fan, Ms. Paulette T., thank you for this link: -gcWaAC&pg=PA89&lpg=PA89&dq=magnus+morner+race+chart&source=bl&ots=rLOvL-yqRE&sig=cDfRRjVuZEb3r5MG3Lik3Fan91E&hl=en&ei=8yG0SsDTApG-sgO8u6yeDQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=9#v=onepage&q=&f=false

As always, big ups to all of you Hip Hapa Homeez for your continued support. We especially appreciate your purchases of our Hapa*Teez t-shirts. Don’t forget to contact us when you buy one so we can add your name to our list of credits for the Watermelon Sushi film. And, remember we’re on Facebook where you can join our Watermelon Sushi Fan Page and Hip Hapa Homeez group, and on Twitter where you can follow lines of dialogue from our Watermelon Sushi script. And, that list of Ning sites I promised last week is being compiled even as we read and write.

Until next Wednesday, I am...

Your Hip Hapa,


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