Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Narrative4 Story Sharing and Radical Empathy

About three weeks ago I took a workshop at Portland State on Narrative4 Story Sharing and then tried it out with my Freshman Inquiry class. What a blast!

Narrative4 is an organization that promotes shared story telling as a way of achieving deep empathy with others, particularly those with quite different experiences or beliefs.

The format is simple but profound. Participants after getting a brief introduction pair up and share a meaningful story with each other. The goal of the listener is to listen closely and to ask questions only if confused. Then the pairs return to a circle of a dozen or so people, and people share and listen to each others' stories. The tellers relate that they feel like they have stepped into someone else's life. Those whose stories are being told are able to examine the story from a different perspective. At the end, the members of each pair tell each other their hopes for each other.

I was paired with a friend whom I have long had great respect for, and her story took me much deeper into her life and how she views herself. In my class, we were blown away by the bravery and intensity of the stories, how people we thought we knew had such deep and powerful experiences.  It brought people from diverse ethnic and backgrounds together and radically deepened my regard for the class members, as I now have such a deeper appreciation for who they are and what they have been through.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Mark Reynolds at PopMatters, "an international magazine of cultural criticism and analysis," just did a long, thoughtful reflection on my book on American views of Africa from a Pan-African perspective. It is entitled "You May Be Black or You May Be White But in Africa You're an American First."

Like many liberal-minded white academics, I wrestle with the question of how to approach African-American history and life in my work. Growing up in rural Clatsop County did not exactly give me a working knowledge of black culture, and I was immersed in the racism, patent and latent, of that time and place. But not addressing the lives of African Americans in one's work hardly seems like a workable or helpful approach, either.

The more I learn about African-American culture, the more I am struck by how ignorant I remain, and how complex the subject often is. Certainly listening--whether it is to friends talking or writers writing--to many different people is a good start.

Monday, August 14, 2017

On Frank Bruni, White Men, and Listening

Frank Bruni's recent column in the New York Times, "I'm a White Man, Hear Me Out," generated a lot of discussion and made me reflect. Bruni takes issue with the point of view that white men are disqualified from participating in discussions on race and that we often receive mixed messages, such as (he is quoting Mark Lilla): "You must understand my experience, and you can't understand my experience."

I think Bruni well captures how many white males feel about the discussion around race these days, and that most white men are apt to vote for the person or party who is not asserting or implying that they are racist.

But I also think that it is perfectly understandable, even logical, for people who have been systematically harmed by systemic racism practiced over centuries to feel both that white people  must and cannot understand them. Moving between hope and despair and feeling both things at once about the current state of race and racism in America should be a common experience.

I have had the good fortune to be in many situations--not just in Africa but in Portland, too--in which I was the only white person in a room, and I have co-facilitated or sat in many multi-racial groups that discussed race and racism. I have found that the capacity to just listen with empathy to someone's experience of racism is very powerful for both the listener and the speaker. One of the more pervasive and often subtle privileges of white masculinity is the privilege of having the floor. All sorts of possibilities open up when that dynamic shifts.

Just listening won't fix the problem, and I believe that there is a time for everyone to be heard. But for white men to just listen might be a powerful and promising beginning.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Zed Books of the UK has just published a book by Yo Ghana! President and co-founder, David Peterson del Mar: African, American: From Tarzan to Dreams from My Father, Africa in the U.S. Imagination. The book is dedicated to the late Brando Akoto, one of our organization's visionaries.

Leslie James, a historian at Queen Mary, University of London, remarks that the book: "Demonstrates how Americans projected their own gender, class, and racial psychoses into their experiences and renderings of the African continent. Peterson del Mar seeks a critical approach not to what Africa is, but to how Americans have perceived it. With this comprehensive source, we might begin to understand the difference."

Kathryn Mathers, a cultural anthropologist at Duke University, states: "Through a comprehensive yet sensitive analytical reading of fiction, autobiography, and film, Peterson del Mar shows just how much Africa has and continues to shape what it means to be American." The book is summarized in a blog post on the Organization of American Historians website.

Contact us (
yoghana.org@gmail.com) if you are interested in purchasing a copy for $20.00, and the profit will be donated to Yo Ghana!

Monday, June 19, 2017

"I Will Not Sit and Fold My Arms"

By the age of sixty, most academics have their courses worked out. But I taught a service-learning course for the first time this past term that was a blast.

The Portland State University students were from an Honor's College seminar class, and most of them volunteered as tutors with immigrant students at Reynolds High School under the direction of Debra Tavares. Two worked with middle school students taking an enrichment course on interviewing and research at St. Andrew Nativity School. One worked as a tutor at Africa House, part of the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization.

The PSU students were delightful to work with. Some were immigrants themselves, most had been born in the U.S. Some were on the shy side, others very outgoing. Some had loved high school, some had hated it, and one had dropped out.

What they all shared in common was a passion for helping others and adapting to what students needed. And the younger students loved them.

I remember that about twenty years ago, when my life partner and I contemplated adoption across racial lines, I had a sense that having a son of color would entail leaving my cocoon of privilege, that I'd start to see the world at times from my dark-skinned child's perspective.

For me--and I think for the PSU students who had grown up in comfortable circumstances--tutoring vulnerable youth is a bit like that. You start to learn what sort of trauma refugees have witnessed, what sort of difficulties and prejudices that so many youth and their parents face. Like parenting a child of color, it becomes more difficult to assume and to assert that life is always good and easy and fair.

There is a lot of discussion these days among progressive-minded Americans about how to be in solidarity with refugees and other immigrants. I think what we found is that providing some concrete assistance (help in learning English) and a willingness to sit and listen to people's stories can be very powerful. Deep listening can provide youth with permission to start thinking about and sharing their remarkable, often painful, stories. And once you've heard those stories and witnessed the courage of the people telling them--well, your perspective on life is deepened and changed.

I'll give Joel, one of our courageous young students from Reynolds who lost her parents and siblings a day after her birth, the last word on this: ""I will not sit and fold my arms."

Why I'm Posting Less Here

I plan to keep posting blogs here every few weeks, but much of my blogging has been subsumed by Yo Ghana's website or Facebook page.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

My Author Interview

The Beyond Footnotes series of KPSU radio station and the PSU History Department recently interviewed me about my forthcoming book: African, American: From Tarzan to Dreams from My Father--Africa in the US Imagination. 

Click here to listen to the forty-five minute interview. The folks at Beyond Footnotes do a great job of preparing and asking questions, and there are many other interviews in the series.

The book will appear in mid-July and is dedicated to Mr. Brando Akoto, a Yo Ghana! board member who passed away late in 2015.

​For more information about the book, consult the Zed Books website.