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Every afternoon at 3 0’clock, for the first twenty-five years of my American life, I sat down on my couch and watched Oprah Winfrey’s talk show. It was Oprah who taught me Gavin de Becker’s “The Gift of Fear” and later, if ever I were kidnapped, that I should remember Sanford Strong’s Rule #1: to never let myself be taken to the second location.  My teenage daughter can recite this.

When Oprah started her own book club and single-handedly did more for the publishing industry than anyone before her, I was pleased when she chose titles I would have selected myself. Watching Oprah’s show was a small ritual that contributed to the order of my days in America, and I almost miss it.

As for Ms. Winfrey, still very much a force, she is still someone to pay attention to on the Forbes 2013 Most Powerful Celebrities List. I remember some years ago, Oprah Winfrey drew up a list herself, a list of eight powerful women she thought we should all know (as if we were likely to encounter any of them at the grocery store or on the bus). Using her afternoon talk show, she introduced us to them, and I remember being taken by one of them in particular – Anna Deavere Smith, whom you might best remember as Nancy McNally from the hit series The West Wing, or more recently as Gloria in Nurse Jackie.

While I don’t remember all Oprah’s reasons for including Anna Deavere Smith on her list, I distinctly recall what the actress said to her about women – that we should be bolder; that we should argue as much as our male counterparts, and that we shouldn’t try so hard to avoid conflict. We should speak up and out. Boldly.

Professionally – and personally –  I don’t think I did anything that even felt remotely bold until I was in my forties. At the time, I was the principal of a small high school in Phoenix, struggling to turn it around while dealing with the devastating impact of a new Arizona law, Proposition 300. It required me to inform thirty-eight of my bright immigrant students that they would no longer be able to take state-funded college courses, because they were in the country illegally. Now, It wasn’t their fault. They had been carried to America as infants by parents in pursuit of a better life for them. But without Social Security Numbers or visas, the American Dream would remain achingly elusive. The irony wasn’t lost on me as an immigrant from Northern Ireland, being asked to once again segregate children at school – school which should be the sacred space in any country – placing those who could prove citizenship in college classes and denying those who could not prove residency and could certainly not afford to pay their own way. Over 90% of my students lived below the American poverty level.

The law was unfair. It felt un-American and anti-immigrant. In particular, it felt anti-Mexican immigrant. My white Northern European skin seemed much more acceptable.Because nobody told me what to do or what not to do about my students, I reached out to the local media and anyone who would listen. I was bold. I even asked for money and, in small part because of  the kindness of strangers, soon raised over $100,000 to pay for tuition. Our story landed in the metro section of the New York Times, “A Principal Sees Injustice and Picks a Fight with It.” And, of all people, Anna Deavere Smith read it. It was March 2008, and during Spring parent-teacher conferences, she came to my office. Nancy from the West Wing was sitting across my desk.

Initially star-struck, I wasn’t sure what to say to one of Oprah’s phenomenal women. But as she explained what she was doing in Phoenix, we fell into a conversation that covered a lot of ground – from Northern Ireland to Arizona. She was in town to interview, along with me, an array of Phoenix politicians, community activists, lawyers, and incarcerated women, for her one-woman play, “The Arizona Project,” commissioned to honor the 2006 naming of Arizona State University’s law school for retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor—the first U.S. law school to be named for a woman.

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We talked about our respective childhoods, and Anna recalled that when she was a girl, her grandfather had told her that

 . . . if you say a word enough, it becomes you.

Inspired by that notion, she went off around these United States, interviewing people touched by some of our most harrowing social and racial tensions, recording her conversations with them, and shaping them into collections of monologues which she presents, verbatim, on stage. Using the real words of real people, Anna Deavere Smith breathes in – and out – America.

heaneyatarnahorishIt was surreal. I was a school principal in a Phoenix high school; she was an acclaimed actress. She even had “people.” They set up the camera in my office and left us to talk about justice and education and even my beloved Seamus Heaney. She loved him too and admired the black and white picture of him hanging on my office wall. I gave her a copy of it, and now that he is gone, I like knowing his picture hangs in our respective living rooms. Worlds apart.

As we talked about the nature of justice, I read his poem, “Punishment,” for her, explaining that it was from this that I had learned long ago the importance of speaking out, of being bold, and not “casting the stones of silence.”

Punishment

I can feel the tug
of the halter at the nape
of her neck, the wind
on her naked front.
It blows her nipples
to amber beads,
it shakes the frail rigging
of her ribs.

I can see her drowned
body in the bog,
the weighing stone,
the floating rods and boughs.

Under which at first
she was a barked sapling
that is dug up
oak-bone, brain-firkin:

her shaved head
like a stubble of black corn,
her blindfold a soiled bandage,
her noose a ring

to store
the memories of love.
Little adulteress,
before they punished you

you were flaxen-haired,
undernourished, and your
tar-black face was beautiful.
My poor scapegoat,

I almost love you
but would have cast, I know,
the stones of silence.
I am the artful voyeur

of your brain’s exposed
and darkened combs,
your muscles’ webbing
and all your numbered bones:

I who have stood dumb
when your betraying sisters,
cauled in tar,
wept by the railings,

who would connive
in civilized outrage
yet understand the exact
and tribal, intimate revenge.

Trying to explain to her my deeply troubled Northern Ireland, I read from his 1995 Nobel Acceptance speech:

One of the most harrowing moments in the whole history of the harrowing of the heart in Northern Ireland came when a minibus full of workers being driven home one January evening in 1976 was held up by armed and masked men and the occupants of the van ordered at gunpoint to line up at the side of the road. Then one of the masked executioners said to them, “Any Catholics among you, step out here”. As it happened, this particular group, with one exception, were all Protestants, so the presumption must have been that the masked men were Protestant paramilitaries about to carry out a tit-for-tat sectarian killing of the Catholic as the odd man out, the one who would have been presumed to be in sympathy with the IRA and all its actions. It was a terrible moment for him, caught between dread and witness, but he did make a motion to step forward. Then, the story goes, in that split second of decision, and in the relative cover of the winter evening darkness, he felt the hand of the Protestant worker next to him take his hand and squeeze it in a signal that said no, don’t move, we’ll not betray you, nobody need know what faith or party you belong to. All in vain, however, for the man stepped out of the line; but instead of finding a gun at his temple, he was thrown backward and away as the gunmen opened fire on those remaining in the line, for these were not Protestant terrorists, but members, presumably, of the Provisional IRA . . . The birth of the future we desire is surely in the contraction which that terrified Catholic felt on the roadside when another hand gripped his hand, not in the gunfire that followed, so absolute and so desolate, if also so much a part of the music of what happens.

And I read it again. She wanted to “get this” and had to send her assistant for more tape.

When our conversation ended, and the camera and tape recorder packed away, Anna Deavere Smith told her assistant, Kimber, to be sure to get a picture of the shoes. My shoes. They weren’t my favorites. They were uncomfortable, beige, high-heeled and professional. I suppose I had chosen them in an effort to look a bit bolder at work, a part of my armor.

205142_1052722039427_2592_nWhen I watched her perform her show at the Herberger Theater, the night after President Obama was elected to his first term, I understood the shoes. Watching her morph into Sheriff Joe Arpaio or the Mayor of Phoenix or a Native American woman living on the reservation, we knew we were looking in the mirror.

Changing shoes between each monologue, Anna Deavere Smith walked for miles in our words that evening, crisscrossing Arizona and America and showing us our very souls.

 

 

 

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© Art by Sheila Dee Which shoes should I choose today?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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