restricted access Preface: On Life Betwixt and Between
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Preface On Life Betwixt and Between My deceased grandmother, who was originally from South Carolina and moved to Philadelphia in her forties, wasat least of partial Gullah heritage. An unschooled farmer who, asfamily legend has it, delivered her six babies on her ownwithout the aid of doctor or midwife, she taught herself to read by memorizing the Bible. Grandma Aiken had a battery of sayings that could have filled a "good book" of her own. The family's youngsters rarely knew exactly what Grandma was talking about. When I'd ask my mother to interpret what she wassaying,she wouldjust look down and, whileshaking her head, say, "Chile, that's just that old country Geechee English; don't pay too much mind to it." But I paid attention anyway and the meaningsof many of her mysterious sayingshave slowly revealed themselves to me over the years—Ithink once I had enough life experience to fully relate to what she was saying. Every time I sawher she would say to me with a hug and with earnest certainty, "How's my HI' school teacher?!" Eventually, Grandma's nickname for me became School Teacher. I remember being initially a little perplexed about why she would call a six-year-old "School Teacher." Over time I intuitively came to understand that for Grandma, who waslargely denied opportunity because ofJim Crow, this was an act of aspiration and faith that myfuture might realize her deferred dreams. I continue to be driven by the visionsof this woman who survived and accomplished much in conditions that I can barely imagine. In part because of her, and even though I didn't growup in the most privileged of circumstances , I always believed I could write books that people might read and maybe find in some way interesting. I wrote this book in large part to honor my deceased grandmother's hopes for my generation. For me she represents the Blackwomen who have nurtured and inspired me and who created many "firsts"—big and small—that have made African Americans' astounding survival as a people possible in America.1 I stand in their shadow and spirit, trying to make myself worthy of their sacrifice. This book is as much their creation as it is mine and is dedicated to them. Grandma Aiken left me with a particular saying that has been a running motif of my life and this book. Frequently,when I would ask her how she was doing, she would say that she was "betwixt and between."As a young x Preface woman I came to understand that what Grandma meant wasthat shewasn't feeling bad; she wasn't feeling good; she wasjust existing some place between happiness and resignation—a general state of many people's lives. Technically, the term, derived from Old English, means a midway position —neither one thing nor the other. But I think that Grandma wasalso making a kind of existential statement—an expression of a condition of feeling out of sync for some reason that she could not quite explain. Black people in America have long written about this condition of betwixt -and-betweenness that W.E. B. Du Bois called double consciousness: a disjointed identity,partiallyimposed by racism—the "two-ness" of living between Whiteness and Blackness, Africanness andAmericanness—always seeing oneself through another's vision, never feeling quite whole. With the global flow of people and ideas in the contemporaryworld, this feeling of disjuncture—of being betwixt and between—asGrandma would say—is increasingly common for many people. In manyways this book is the most current iteration of my longstanding personal effort to weave together the seemingly disconnected threads that have shaped the many cultural worlds in which I live: Black; White; nonprofit; corporate America; Nigeria; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania;Minneapolis, Minnesota; and many others. This book tells the story of the Cultural WellnessCenter (CWC), aMinneapolis (Minnesota) nonprofit organization that attempts to create new approaches to build "African" communityto reduce feelings of alienation for Black people and many others living through the most rapid demographic changes in this region's history.The CWC teaches that manyof the lifestyle-related illnesses, such as diabetes and hypertension, that disproportionately affect persons of African descent are in fact a result ofwarring identities literally inside the bodies of people of color and others as theyattempt to assimilate into mainstream society. The CWC offers a complex array of programs to help people create a more integrated identity and more healthful lifestyles to support it. I was...