Actual Space: Interview With Lola Peters

Editor Robert Lashley, Interview, August 22nd, 2016

"I think of a woman standing knee-deep in cotton, surrounded..."

Interview with Lola Peters, art by Mickalene Thomas
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“Actual Space” is a monthly column for black voices. It is a forum to tell your story, and answer questions on a variety of topics concerning how one copes with being black, what concerns you about race, what you wished you learned, and what gives you hope for the future. Edited and curated by Robert Lashley, for NAILED Magazine. To obtain a prompt or question to write for “Actual Space,” email Robert at robert@nailedmagazine.com.

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NAILED MAGAZINE: How do you cope with life’s difficulties concerning race?

LOLA PETERS: I remember all of the people who have gone before us. Specifically, I think of a woman standing knee-deep in cotton, surrounded by cotton for miles around. I envision her looking up, wiping the sweat pouring down her face, sighing, and thinking, “Someday one of my children’s children will be a woman who can be whoever she wants and do whatever she wants. Someday.” And I know she’s looking to the future and seeing my spirit shimmering in the sun. For her, I have to continue. She paid a price too dear for me to let her down.

NAILED: What is your way to deal with racism?

PETERS: Straightforwardly. Before my forties I tried being nice about it. After forty, not so much. Once I had a solid understanding and analysis of racism I determined to deal with it head on.

NAILED: What do you do to process and beat black ‘the blues’ concerning racism?

PETERS: I give myself permission to shut down for a while. I will listen to Joe Sample’s CDs for hours on end. Sometimes I’ll call friends, just to process. Sometimes I will write: a poem, an essay, a Facebook post… something.

NAILED: When did you realize you were black?

PETERS: I was born in Ethiopia and came to the US at age seven. My father was African American and my mother was Greek/Ethiopian. In Ethiopia, race was not a factor in my life, and blackness was the mark of power and prestige. Emperor Haile Selassie was a dark skinned, slender, short man who embodied power. However, class was a very powerful factor in those years. When we moved to the US, my parents chose to settle us in a middle-class, 99.9% white suburb in the Bay Area. I learned what it was to be black within the first week when neighborhood kids took our brand new puppy out of our yard and threw it in front of a speeding car, then justified it because it was a “n***** dog.” Weeks later, our next door neighbor told me I couldn’t join her daughter’s Camp Fire Girls group because, “they don’t take your kind.” I learned that being black had little to do with actual skin tone, rather it was about African heritage.

NAILED: In regards to your history and the past, what were you taught and want to teach future generations?

PETERS: That racism is not about love or hate, but about justification to hoard power and resources and dismantling it requires an understanding of power dynamics.

NAILED: Who taught you?

PETERS: Peoples’ Institute for Survival & Beyond, Rev. Dr. Bill Jones

NAILED: What do you wish somebody taught you?

PETERS: What I was taught, only much, much, much, much earlier.

NAILED: What of our history that we lost that we need to learn again?

PETERS: The power of our creative problem-solving, our mathematical and scientific genius.

NAILED: What is good about the present that we need to pass on to our children and grandchildren?

PETERS: Our art (especially abstract), poetry, music. Books by Toni Morrison, J. California Cooper, Derrick Bell, Randall Robinson, Cornel West, Audrey Lorde, Nikki Giovanni, Octavia Butler. Black engineers and architects.

NAILED: What were you taught that you wish you could unlearn?

PETERS: White cultural supremacy. Every once in a while I realize I’ve slipped into a space where I’m using white cultural norms as a standard of measure. Grrrrrr.

NAILED: Who taught you?

PETERS: Everyone. My father’s aunt raised him. She was a schoolteacher and insisted on precise and perfect use of the English language. He passed that along to me. A blessing/curse. I love language, but sometimes I have to really battle internally with what I hold up as “normal.” My mother’s father was Greek. Though married to a smart, savvy, powerful Ethiopian woman, he insisted his children adopt European clothing, music, and other cultural norms. Then, when we were living in the Bay Area, I went to school every day and was taught white cultural, historical, social, economic, and intellectual superiority in every class. All of my teachers were white. Every bit of history we learned showed white people as heroes.

NAILED: What of our history should we do away with?

PETERS: None of it. Our history strengthens us. It is the infrastructure on which we must build the future. But we need to see it honestly, warts and all.

NAILED: What do we have as a people now that we should learn to do away with?

PETERS: Self-doubt. We need to understand that we each have a gift within us without which the world cannot fulfill its destiny. Nature doesn’t waste its energy making things that are not needed. We are a necessary part of all life. We need to develop our gifts, support one another in that process, and live fully.

NAILED: What about black people gives you hope for the future?

PETERS: Our past. We don’t give up. We don’t go away. Generation after generation, we walk around the cylinder that is life and move up from level to level. And the brilliance of our Millennials.

NAILED: Speak from the heart and the gut on any ONE of the following issues challenging our community: Crime, Drugs, Prison, Violence, Poverty, Education, Upward Mobility, X, X, X

PETERS: These are all the same issue to me: How do we survive despite the power and access to resources we are denied, and how do we keep integrity in the process? We need to build and strengthen community. We need to build real confidence in our abilities. We need to build our own institutions and hold them accountable. Most of all, we need to stand together against anyone who seeks to tell lies about us and deny our humanity. Like generations before us, we need to succeed despite white people. And we do, for the most part. When we don’t it’s because we’ve trusted white people and believed they were going to change their quest for supremacy.

NAILED: Growing up, what is the one profession that you wish you had been introduced to (earlier or at all) and why? (in the Coates essay in a recent issue of The Atlantic, there is a quote wherein a man named Yusef Bunchy Shakur says: “I’ve never talked with a doctor until he be sewing me up after I got shot. I never talked with a lawyer until he was sending me to prison. I never talked with a judge until he convicted me.” Which led me to think about the accessibility of various professions attached to real-world possibility for careers, and the gross lack of participation in black communities by white or non-black professionals.

PETERS: There are so many I would have loved to explore: Journalism, Structural Engineering, Carpentry, Music. Only the last one was a vague possibility, but my parents wouldn’t have approved.

NAILED: What member of the black community do you wish more people knew more about / studied / followed / emulated / listened to, and why?

PETERS: In Seattle, Omar Willey. It’s criminal that a brilliant mind like his exists in our region and no one knows his name. He is a man of deep conscience and incredible intellect. He is multi-lingual, incisive as a thinker, a scientist, writer, technology geek, photographer, artist and so much more. How is he unknown in the town he was born?

Oh, and magical realism author Helen Collier. Her books are on par with Octavia Butler. We need to celebrate the living!!!

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Header Image courtesy of Mickalene Thomas. To view a gallery of her art, go here.

Lola Peters interview NAILED Magazine, Actual Space columnLola E. Peters is a poet and essayist living in West Seattle. She is an active member of Seattle’s African American Writers’ Alliance. Her two books of poetry, Taboos and The Book of David: A Coming of Age Tale, and her book of essays, The Truth About White People, are available on lulu.com, Amazon, and other online booksellers. She has written articles for Cross Cut, Seattle Star, and South Seattle Emerald. Her poems have been published in several anthologies, including The Sun Never Rises,
 A Rainthology (Muddy Puddle Press, 2000), Threads (AuthorHouse, 2009) a compilation by Seattle’s African American Writers’ Alliance, and Motherhood Anthology (Quill & Parchment Press, 2012). Additional publications include Sister, Sistah (a treatise on the difference between Black and White feminism, published by The Brown Papers, Women’s Theological Center, Boston, 1996).

From 1990-1997 Ms. Peters served as Associate Director for Social Justice and then Director for Antiracism & Justice Programs of a national non-profit. She was an active member of the National Council of Churches Racial Justice Working Group from 1990-1998. From 1991-1993, she served as Co-chair of the Council of National Religious AIDS Networks. She has served on many non-profit boards including Onyx Fine Arts Collective, Technology Access Foundation, and Leadership Tomorrow in Seattle. She is committed to eliminating racism in every institution and passionately believes that #BlackLivesMatter.

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Robert Lashley

Robert Lashley is the author of The Homeboy Songs (Small Doggies Press, 2014). A semi finalist for the PEN/Rosenthal fellowship, Lashley has had poems and essays published in such Journals as Feminete, No Regrets, NAILED, and Your Hands, Your Mouth. His work was also featured in Many Trails To The Summit, an anthology of Northwest form and Lyric poetry. To quote James Baldwin, he wants to be an honest man and a good writer.